Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to Miami, Okla. – Part I

 

Thursday, May 9: Eleven days after coming home from Buenos Aires, the Travelin’ Man returned to the friendly skies. One could fairly say the final destination of this trip – Miami, Oklahoma – was far less glamorous than “La Reina de la Plata” (“Silver Queen” in English) but to me it was a nice change of pace. While Buenos Aires is fueled by exotic hustle and bustle – as well as the tango – Miami’s most notable distinction is its close proximity to Commerce, Oklahoma, the birthplace of legendary New York Yankees slugger Mickey Mantle. Plus, the round-trip mileage was far less daunting (15,000-plus vs. 2,900).

The last fight card I worked in Oklahoma was in January 2008, so my return there was long overdue. One of my strongest recollections of Miami (pronounced MY-AM-MUH) was the complaints by the big-city natives on the production crew. They grumbled constantly about the rural surroundings and the lack of night life beyond the casino. Being from a town of 132 people (as of the 2010 Census), I had a far different perspective; this town of 13,570 on the extreme northeastern corner of Oklahoma was a veritable metroplex by comparison, so I didn’t mind the relatively Spartan circumstances.

Although the forecast called for showers and occasional thunderstorms, I awoke to sunny skies at 7:45 a.m., conditions that persisted throughout my drive to Pittsburgh International Airport. After clearing security I glanced at the battery of flight monitors and my reaction was mixed. The good news was that my initial flight to Dallas-Fort Worth was accompanied by the words “on time,” which were especially important since I had a slim 45-minute window to reach my connecting flight to Tulsa. The bad news was the sea of green on the weather radar. The storms they denoted meant delays were possible and turbulence was all but certain.

Sure enough, my initial flight didn’t get off the ground until 25 minutes after the advertised departure time, which closed my connection window to a slit. I cringed slightly when it was announced my connecting gate in Dallas was located in a different concourse but one of DFW’s best amenities is its Skylink tram, which greatly reduces the stresses of covering long distances. I was lucky on three fronts: First, the tram I needed to board arrived less than 30 seconds after I did. Second, my connecting concourse was the initial stop. Finally, my gate was the first one located in the given section.

I arrived just as the boarding process began and within seconds I saw my punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak, who had arrived from Boston just 15 minutes earlier. The storms rocked his plane much more severely than they did mine and though our plane to Tulsa was in the middle range in terms of size and seating we were sure more rocking and rolling was on the horizon.

We were right.

As the aircraft sheared its way through several storm clouds I couldn’t help but think about a May 8 story in which an American Eagle plane that departed Detroit was struck by lightning not once, but twice, before landing safely in New York’s LaGuardia Airport. So much for the old saying that lightning doesn’t strike the same target two times.

Guess which airline were we flying?

You got it.

At one point the plane suddenly but briefly swooped downward before leveling off but thankfully those unsettling moments were rare. The aircraft touched down on the rain spattered runway shortly before 6 p.m. local time but our journey wasn’t quite finished because the final segment involved a drive from Tulsa to Miami.

Since the rental car was ordered in Andy’s name he was the designated driver. Both of us were prepared – perhaps overly so — for the journey: We each had a GPS device as well as printed directions. The route seemed relatively simple – get on Oklahoma Route 11 East, merge onto U.S. 412 East eight miles later, merge onto I-244 East, merge onto Interstate 44 East and drive 72 miles before reaching exit 313.

Simple becomes hard when the fail-safes fail.

Because Andy’s GPS unit couldn’t “find” us and mine wouldn’t accommodate the given address for the Buffalo Run Casino, we relied on the printed directions Andy had with him. Once we reached I-44 East, which we knew we were on because a road sign said so, we felt we were home free because the final turn-off, Exit 313, wouldn’t come for at least an hour. 

Somewhere along the way, however, I-44 East disappeared while a road that forced us to fork one way or the other appeared. We knew instantly something was amiss, so Andy found the first safe place to pull over and parked the car. We decided to turn on my GPS device and programmed a dummy address for Miami in the hopes that we could improvise once we got into town. Within 30 seconds my device “found” us and soon we were guided onto the correct path.

(A brief epilogue: The following morning Andy sent me an e-mail describing where we went wrong. He said we simply missed the turnoff from I-244 onto I-44 and instead continued straight on OK-412. That, of course, flummoxed me because we both saw the road sign that said we were on I-44. Still, had we not stopped when we did we would have driven through a national park and, eventually, into Arkansas. Not good. He blamed his navigational miscue on “your spellbinding tale of adventures in the far-flung Southern Hemisphere.” I suppose my storytelling abilities have that effect on people.)

Once we neared our destination, there was a road sign that said the path toward Miami was on our left, so we decided to turn toward that highway. But before we went any further, Andy decided to stop at a gas station to pick up some items as well as confirm we were heading in the right direction. Good thing he did, because he found out the Buffalo Run Casino was located not on the road pointing toward Miami but a mile-and-a-quarter down the other highway. As regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know, logic and travel don’t always go together.

We arrived at our destination shortly thereafter and checked into the Buffalo Run Hotel located next door. After calling home and texting CompuBox President Bob Canobbio to let them know I was safe and sound I called Facebook friend and longtime publicist Rachel Charles, with whom I had hoped to meet later on. That didn’t happen because she was tied up with a multitude of tasks related to her new role – promoter.

With financial backing from Herb Hudson – the owner of Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles as well as Pitbull Energy Products – she is now the boxing brains behind Pitbull Promotions and tomorrow night’s card represented her first co-promotion. She couldn’t have asked for a bigger occasion for her debut, for her fighter, seventh-ranked Cleotis Pendarvis, was fighting number two rated Dierry Jean for a mandatory shot against IBF junior welterweight titlist Lamont Peterson. Given Pendarvis’ relatively low profile and already lower ranking, a defeat would devastate his chances for a similar opportunity anytime soon.

For understandable reasons, she asked for a rain check the following day, so I walked over to the casino to grab a late-night snack. I ordered a grilled turkey sandwich and fries to go and retired to my room. The meal combined with the mild time change was as sneaky as an Archie Moore right hand because I ended up turning out the lights shortly before 11 p.m., an abnormally early time for me.

Friday, May 10: I awoke with a start at 5:45 a.m. and after getting ready for the day I wandered toward the hotel lobby to seek out breakfast – a meal I normally wouldn’t eat until after noon given my usual circadian rhythms. My timing was excellent, for I spotted Rachel with Team Pendarvis right before they were to leave for the morning-after weigh-in next door. We agreed to meet sometime after her schedule temporarily cleared.

Meanwhile, I grabbed a cup of orange juice and a small bowl of cereal before settling into a comfortable spot near the TV. The flat-screen’s proximity was rendered moot because over the next couple of hours I had plenty of conversation mates. First it was live graphics specialist Mary Swinson (whose Washington Capitals won a Stanley Cup playoff game the previous night), then Steve Farhood invited me to his pre-fight confab with executive producer Gordon Hall and Farhood’s broadcasting colleagues Barry Tompkins and Raul Marquez. Along the way longtime boxing PR man John Beyrooty, production manager Joe Jacovino and Fight Fax impresario Anibal Miramontes stopped by for a few minutes.

Get a group of boxing guys together and the topics can go far and wide. Stories were swapped, insights were exchanged and sometimes we all ventured off the beaten path. Believe it or not, sumo wrestling sneaked into the conversation. All in all, however, it was great fun and if we hadn’t had work to do we’d probably still be gathered around that tiny table in the hotel lobby.

After returning to my room I dialed up HBO Travel to book my next trip and then Bob Canobbio about this, that and other things. I soon got a text from Rachel, who asked me to meet her in the lobby at 1 p.m. to grab a cup of coffee.

At least that was the plan; 1 p.m. became 1:10, then 1:15. At 1:17 I texted Rachel to see if all was well and she instantly replied “on my way.” My guess was that a flurry of last-minute details reared their ugly heads because it wasn’t until 1:35 that she and her colleague Diane Vara (a dead ringer for singer Selena Gomez) walked through the door. The wait was more than worth it; here I was in a hotel lobby drinking coffee with two smart, lovely women who also love boxing. Suddenly channeling Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” I thought: “I don’t usually drink coffee, but when I do I make sure I have really good company.” I couldn’t have asked for anything more.

I first met Rachel – at least on the phone – nearly 10 years ago during the days when I compiled “training camp notes” for HBO as part of my CompuBox duties. When the native of Birmingham, England was working with Goossen Tutor I occasionally called her regarding contact information for various trainers I needed to interview and I instantly took note of her accent and bubbly personality. The next edition of Webster’s should have Rachel’s picture next to the word “extrovert” and I believe her high-energy quotient will serve her well as a promoter.

As for Diane, she is relatively new to the boxing promotion game but she is well versed in marketing, for which she earned her degree three years ago. Her youthful looks belie her experience and status as Hudson’s right-hand person and based on my initial impression she and Rachel will be an effective one-two punch. Pitbull’s next promotion will be staged sometime in July and are actively seeking fighters to sign.

Our gaggle broke up after about 30 minutes and although my call time at the arena wasn’t until 3 p.m. my restless soul couldn’t abide sitting around and watching the clock. Instead, I showed up early and decided to pass the time with even more gab-fests. One of those involved Gary and Gerald Ritter, twin brothers who have refereed and judged fights in the state and elsewhere for decades. Another generation of Ritters is being cultivated for Chris Ritter was listed as one of the judges on this six-bout card.

One fellow who bent my ear – and nearly broke it in the best sense – was Ron Copher, a retired sportswriter/educator who boasts a magnificent autograph collection. He regaled me with stories about Mantle’s early days as well as encounters with Whitey Ford and Billy Martin and added tales of meeting numerous Heisman Trophy winners. On the boxing side he told me about meeting Kenny Lane in his later years, noting that he remained in tremendous condition even then. He also showed off a couple of trading card of George Foreman-Evander Holyfield that already bore Big George’s distinctive swirling signature. Since “The Real Deal” was to appear as a guest of the casino, he hoped to complete the double.

As Ron and I chatted inside the hotel lobby, the only man ever to hold undisputed championships at cruiserweight and heavyweight strode into the lobby. Even at 50 Holyfield remains in impeccable physical condition – he estimated his weight as being 225 – but his facial expression indicated his guard was up. Ron was the first to approach Holyfield, who is hesitant about signing autographs because of the market value such items would engender for the seeker but not for the signer. After some gentle cajoling, Holyfield signed one of Ron’s cards with only his surname and the bible verse Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”

Unfortunately for me I didn’t bring my copy of Harry Mullan’s “The Great Book of Boxing” because I wanted to preserve extra space in my luggage. I had the next best thing in tow however – my digital camera.

I approached Holyfield, who looked at me with an expression I interpreted as skepticism. As someone who appreciates boxing history – and Holyfield’s role in it – and realizing this might be my one and only chance to speak with him, I wanted to deliver my message with crystal-clear clarity. I told him I had followed his career since his 1984 Olympic trials fights with Ricky Womack and about how much I appreciated the great memories he gave us boxing fans as well as how much of himself he gave to the sport. When I finished a small smile creased his face and he said “thank you.” Emboldened, I asked him to pose for a photograph and after some initial problems with the camera settings the man who accompanied him snapped this photo.

Just before leaving for the arena, I was a guest on Randy Gordon’s weekly Sirius XM boxing show “Friday Night at the Fights.” I had known of Randy for decades, for the first story of his I read involved his sparring session with Howard Davis Jr. just before the 1976 gold medalist fought Giancarlo Usai in April 1979. Our first face-to-face meeting took place during my last trip to New York City for the Tyson Fury-Steve Cunningham fight and it went so well that he invited me to appear on his radio show, which he co-hosts with former heavyweight title challenger Gerry Cooney.

The day’s events served as a perfect warm-up for my segment, which was very well received. It became eminently clear to both of us that 12 minutes wouldn’t be nearly enough time for a complete interview, so Randy said at the end that he wanted me to be in studio for the full two hours next time I was in New York. With any luck that time will be sooner than later.

I couldn’t have asked for a better way to set up a terrific night at the fights, which began the moment I headed out the door and walked toward the arena 50 yards away.

*

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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