Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man goes to London – Part I

 

Thursday, May 23: Up until a couple of weeks ago, I believed my next destination would be Montreal – the city I’ve visited most often outside the United States. That’s because I was penciled in to work the HBO-televised Lucian Bute-Jean Pascal showdown at the Bell Centre, the home of the storied Canadiens of the NHL as well as many terrific fight nights. Given the way both men have been received in separate matches, I was certain the atmosphere would be off the charts once they were in the ring together.

As I called up my e-mails during the late afternoon hours of May 7, however, I experienced what felt like a rocket-fueled emotional roller coaster. The following sequence of events ended up changing my short-term future in unexpected, yet thrilling ways. But first I had to endure some initial disappointment.

The 3:51 p.m. e-mail from HBO Travel boasted this subject line – all in capital letters: “The May 25 World Championship Boxing Event in Montreal Has Been Cancelled.” Because I’m a fan as well as a part of the “industry,” I felt a bit deflated. After shuffling through various boxing web sites I learned Bute suffered a hand injury during training, which, I later found out, pushed the fight back to December 7.

The cancellation also put into question how HBO would address the telecast’s co-feature – same-day coverage of the rematch between IBF super middleweight king Carl Froch and WBA counterpart Mikkel Kessler (who had dethroned then-WBC titlist Froch in April 2010 as part of the Super Six tournament).

Despite being the defending titlist, the tournament’s format mandated that Froch risk his belt in Kessler’s native Denmark, where “The Viking Warrior” was 39-for-39. Froch complained bitterly throughout the promotion and his greatest fears were realized when, despite out-throwing Kessler 961-682 and out-landing him 224-193 (including 110-97 in power shots), he lost his title – and undefeated record – by far wider-than-reality margins (117-111, 116-112 and a more sensible 115-113).

With my trip to Canada off the boards, my attention shifted as to how I would occupy my suddenly cleared schedule.

I had several options: Getting a little farther ahead on my CompuBox research responsibilities, thinking up ideas for future “10 Lists” for RingTV.com, editing and burning fights onto DVDs and so on. The most appealing choice was attending my 30th high school reunion, for alumni weekend was scheduled for May 24 and 25. Because my work schedule at my previous newspaper job required me to work on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I hadn’t attended an anniversary weekend in a quarter century.

But before I could even think about reconnecting with my classmates, another e-mail – sent six minutes later – changed everything.

The subject line – again in all caps – read thusly: “May 25 will now be in London for a small HBO boxing crew…including everyone on this e-mail.”

“Could this be?” I thought, my hopes rising. “No, it couldn’t be.”

It was. Once I opened the e-mail, these words greeted me: “We will be taking the following personnel to London for a fight at O2 Arena on the night the Montreal fight was to take place.” Ten names were listed – and mine was number eight.

“Oh my God,” I exclaimed. “I’m going to London!”

My cautious nature being what it is, I withheld my full celebration – or, to borrow a title of a long-running HBO comedy, I “curbed my enthusiasm” – until I was given the total green light. Here’s why: I usually heard news like this from CompuBox president Bob Canobbio – the man who decides who goes where and when. The change in venue might persuade those more experienced than I am to ask for the assignment. Because they rightly occupy a higher place on the totem pole they probably would get the gig if they were available to work it. With that in mind, I forwarded the second e-mail to Bob and asked him for confirmation I was going.  

A couple of hours later I received this reply: “I just looked at the original e-mail and your name is on the list, so I guess you’re going to London. Cheers!”

And cheer I did.

I finally permitted myself to wrap my mind around the fact I was about to add England to the “countries visited” list – Canada, the Bahamas, Germany, Argentina (and an accidental crossing into Mexico last year) were the others. I also thought about how intense the fight-night atmosphere would be. If I believed 50,000 Argentines singing and chanting for Sergio Martinez in a rain-soaked soccer stadium was something – and it was – I could only imagine how much noise 20,000 Brits inside the O2 would generate. I also looked forward to seeing several of the undercard fights: Undefeated super middleweight contender George Groves (a cousin perhaps?) against Noe Gonzalez and the rematch between light heavyweights Tony Bellew and Isaac Chilemba, who fought to a bitterly-contested draw less than two months earlier.

Normally, a trip of this length would have me leaving on a Wednesday, ostensibly to give me time to adjust my body clock and to get in some sightseeing. But because HBO wouldn’t get access to the arena until Saturday morning – the day of the fight — the departure date was moved to Thursday. Therefore, this will be a whirlwind trip with a tightly-packed itinerary.

Here was my plan: I’d leave the house a little after 1 p.m. to catch the 5:50 p.m. flight from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Then I’d board the 9:50 p.m. bird from Philly and fly all night to London’s Heathrow Airport, where, if all went well, we’d land at 10 a.m. local time Friday.

If I hoped to get in any tourist time I’d have to try to rest my eyes during the seven-hour, 3,600-mile flight – a big “try” given my inability to sleep on airplanes and my deeply ingrained night-owl habits. For me, 10 a.m. in London is 5 a.m. body clock time, only two hours after I go to sleep most nights. To neutralize the effects of jet lag I intended to stay awake until at least 10 p.m. local time so I could fall into a deep, satisfying and body-adjusting sleep. This strategy worked wonders during my second trip to Germany in 2008, one year after I horrendously botched it by turning an intended nap into full-blown slumber.

The vast majority of Saturday will be spent at the venue fulfilling various pre-telecast responsibilities and, hopefully, chatting with ringsiders and longtime friends before counting the main event. Once the telecast ended at midnight local time (or thereabouts), I’d catch the van back to the hotel and hopefully get enough sleep before taking the 7 a.m. van to Heathrow, where three hours later I’d board the flight to Charlotte.  

When discussing my flights with HBO Travel during my Miami, Oklahoma trip a couple of weeks earlier, I requested that those to and from London lined up with those already booked by punch-counting colleague Joe Carnicelli,  who’d be flying into Philadelphia from Phoenix. Traveling with my co-worker is always a good thing, but doing so with someone as experienced and prepared as Joe is a huge bonus.

The drive to Pittsburgh was more eventful than usual, mostly because of the inclement weather. The remnants of the system that brought deadly tornadoes to the U.S. heartland produced thunderstorms and torrential rain and some of my road-mates experienced trouble.

Shortly before I reached the I-470 interchange on Ohio 7 I saw a gray car a couple of hundred feet ahead of me suddenly spin left-ward and make two-and-a-half rotations before coming to a rest in the middle of the four-lane highway. Miraculously, the driver managed to avoid hitting the guardrail to her right. Plus, she was lucky no drivers were trying to pass her at the moment she spun out.

I pulled off the side of the road just in case I needed to call 911 to report injuries. Thankfully there were none — a dislodged front license plate was the only visible damage. After making sure she didn’t need my cell phone to make any calls, I went on my way.

My next set of problems occurred just before Exit 41 on I-79 North when traffic came to a virtual stop. I had no idea why – I didn’t see any wrecks or road construction issues – but it still took me 30 minutes to navigate the next seven miles. Then, once I passed the Exit 48 sign, the clog unclogged. I wasn’t worried, for I just happened to leave the house 30 minutes earlier than originally planned to account for the weather. Chalk one up for advanced planning.

Just before I reached the head of the “preferred access” queue at the airport, I glanced to my left and recognized future Hall of Fame cornerback Troy Polamalu, who was about to check in through the “TSA Preferred” line with one of his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates, which, given his immense size, was probably an offensive lineman. I chose not to speak to him only because I didn’t want to create any problems for him but the TSA agent who checked his boarding pass gave him a smile and a heartfelt “good luck this year.” Being a fellow Steelers fan, I nodded in agreement.

Although I already brought some reading material for the long trip – Oliver Horovitz’s “An American Caddie in St. Andrews: Growing Up, Girls and Looping on the Old Course” – I stopped by the Hudson Booksellers shop and purchased a copy of Jimmy Connors’ new book “The Outsider, A Memoir.” I had waited years for the tennis legend to write his autobiography because he, along with Pete Rose and several others, were figures of importance during my formative years.

I had always admired Connors’ extraordinary drive, his matchless tenacity and his ability to connect with the audience. In fact, more than 20 years ago I used Connors as inspiration during a “friendly” tennis match with a co-worker, a one-set, first-to-eight games contest that ended up going much, much longer. When the tied score reached the high teens, my opponent – a much better and more seasoned player than I — shouted across the net “quit, will you?” “No way!” I yelled back. If he was going to get rid of me, he’ll have to beat me fair and square. The final score: 24 games to 22 – me. Thanks Jimmy.

Because we both had lengthy layovers in Philadelphia, Joe, who has enough frequent flier miles to merit a round-trip ticket to Neptune, invited me to wait with him at the US Airways lounge as his guest. I, of course, accepted. He planned to meet me at my gate and take me to the lounge entrance but the travel gods, along with Mother Nature, had other plans.

After taking my seat in 30E – the middle seat in the sixth-to-last row – the pilot came on the loudspeaker and said our departure would be delayed because the exit ramp was waterlogged. Twenty minutes later, he announced another setback: Due to the backlog of delayed planes flying into Philadelphia, that airport’s air traffic control team mandated that our plane remain in Pittsburgh for at least another 45 minutes so they could clear out enough space to handle the next wave of planes, of which ours would be one. Suddenly, my comfortable two-and-a-half hour connection window had tightened considerably, so I texted Joe and called Bob to apprise them of my situation.

After the 45 minutes had passed, the pilot returned with an update: He successfully negotiated a way out of Pittsburgh with one condition – our altitude would never go above 10,000 feet, about half of the customary elevation. With storm clouds covering most of our flight path, a very bumpy ride was extremely likely.

I was right. Boy, was I right.

As the plane rocked, rolled, dipped and slipped through the clouds, I did my best to keep calm by telling stories to my seatmates: A young female dietitian from India now living in Delaware to my right and another woman who was scheduled to be on the same London flight as I would be – if we got to Philly at all.

We touched down shortly before 8:30 and after glancing at the flight monitor I was relieved I wouldn’t have to change concourses to reach my connecting gate. But I still had a long walk ahead of me, for said gate was the very last one in the section.

As I neared my final destination I spotted Joe – dressed in his customary black sweat suit – in the process of sending me a text. Once I approached him, he motioned to the growing line 10 feet to my right. When I asked why he said I needed to show the gate agents my boarding pass and my passport in order to gain the stamp needed to board the plane.

It turns out I had reached the gate in the nick of time, for despite the listed 9:50 departure time, the boarding process began at 8:57.

The plane’s seating configuration in coach was one I had never seen before – two seats to the left and right and four seats in the middle aisle. Joe, with frequent flier figures that could be measured in light years rather than miles, was seated in 10C, in the middle set of seats but on the aisle. As for me, I was situated in 20E – middle aisle, middle seat on the right side.

Drat, drat and double drat. I drew the dreaded “middle middle” seat. Memories of past middle-seat trips included aching shoulders, stiff backs and cramped quarters for hours on end and because it was a night flight in which my three seatmates would likely be sleeping, I didn’t think I’d get any opportunity to use the facilities or stretch my legs.

But then the travel gods smiled beatifically and granted me amnesty. The Philly-to-London flight wasn’t completely full and Row 20 was one of the fortunate few that didn’t have its maximum complement of passengers. In fact, only one other person occupied the row, which allowed me to scoot down to the left-side aisle seat. As a result my seatmate and I had the unexpected luxury of spreading out, which helped his long legs and my achy right shoulder and lower back. Moreover, we had the option of using two tray tables instead of one to eat our meals (I chose the chicken and rice over the pasta) and it gave me enough room to peck away on my laptop while placing my soda on the tray next to me.

Of course, the sodas – and the caffeine within – hindered my attempts to rest. But that was an issue that could wait until tomorrow.

Friday, May 24: No matter how hard I tried – or maybe because I tried too hard – I simply couldn’t fall asleep. Though I closed my eyes I always was aware of my surroundings and it didn’t help that sunlight bathed the cabin at what normally would have been 1:30 a.m. Since we were flying eastward we were on a collision course with the night/day line and the nearing of summer made this night-time period one of my shortest in several years. My sleepless fate was sealed when the lights snapped on just before the breakfast service one hour before we landed. The warm blueberry muffin and orange juice helped recharge my batteries but I knew the effects would be temporary.

When the pilot announced London’s temperature as being 6 degrees Celsius (43 degrees Fahrenheit), more than a few people groaned. It was a far cry from the mid-80s I left behind in West Virginia and the 100-degree dry heat Joe experienced back in Phoenix. Still, I silently smiled at my decision to pack a windbreaker. 

Once Joe and I landed at Heathrow we made the long, long walk toward customs, after which we waited in a moderately lengthy queue to have our passports stamped. The agent allowed us to use the same window and lucky for us our inquisitor was a boxing fan.

Our next task was to find our driver, who we thought would be holding up a sign bearing the word “HBO” since Joe and I were to share a car. Instead, our chauffeur – a bespectacled white-bearded man wearing a black turban – held up a sign with our names (Groves over Carnicelli for the record, an obvious mistake alphabetically and in terms of pecking order). Though my eyes were bleary, they still were sharp enough to spot our man. As he led us to his vehicle, I was discouraged to see my breath producing white-colored puffs. “This is late May for God’s sake,” I thought.

The drive to the hotel lasted nearly 90 minutes, much of which were spent winding through extremely narrow streets that boasted little rhyme or reason. The heavy traffic and the frequent stop lights also slowed our progress. Just a few minutes before reaching our destination we came within a few feet of Big Ben. One of the more curiously named buildings bore the name “The Hung, Drawn and Quartered,” a pub on Tower Hill less than a quarter-mile from our hotel.

During the checking-in process I was nearly mistaken for the super middleweight contender with whom I share a surname. Of course, at age 48 I’m old enough to be George Groves’ father but just imagine if I had not corrected her and had been given his suite and he had gotten my more modest room? If that had happened, I’d probably have one angry fighter on my hands. That’s just another reason why honesty is the best policy.

Once Joe and I checked in we agreed to meet again in 15 minutes’ time in search of lunch. I quickly unpacked my laptop, and to my delight the electrical outlet adapter worked perfectly. I snapped off e-mails to loved ones to let them know I had arrived safely, then met Joe on the elevator.

Although Joe had assembled a list of nearby restaurants, they were more dinner-type places than outlets for light snacks. As is London’s wont, conditions were rainy, blustery and chilly and while I packed a light jacket I neglected to take an umbrella because I didn’t think we’d be outside very much. Silly me.

We wandered for nearly 20 minutes before deciding to buy a couple of sandwiches at a shop inside a nearby mall. We wolfed down our meals, after which we stopped by a magazine place to peruse the fare. I ended up buying the May issue of Boxing Monthly, which, of course, had Froch-Kessler II on the cover.

When I returned to my hotel room, my sleep-deprived fatigue threatened to overtake me. I turned on Sky Sports 1, which was showing a replay of a 1997 cricket match between the U.K. and New Zealand because the live broadcast of their second test match was washed out by rain. The slow-paced action poisoned my efforts to stay awake but I received a much-needed second wind when Sky shifted to its thorough, and excellent, pre-fight coverage of Froch-Kessler II.

I sent Joe an e-mail to call me when he was ready to seek out dinner and shortly before 6:30 he did just that. By now the rain had stopped but the bone-chilling cold remained.

We sauntered toward the Canary Wharf business district located a few blocks from our hotel and scanned the menus (and prices) of several restaurants before settling on a Gourmet Burger Kitchen outlet. For the next hour Joe and I bantered on subjects other than boxing. We share a love of tennis, so we debated topics such as (1) the greater player between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal (he says Federer, I say Nadal) and who are the greatest male and female tennis players of all-time (my choices: Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova; his choices, the wrong ones).

We took our time walking back to the hotel and once we did we spent a few minutes in the lobby with several members of the HBO crew talking about this, that and other things. When I returned to my room I glanced at the clock radio, which read 9:30 p.m. I silently cheered because I knew I was going to meet – and exceed – my objective of staying awake until at least 10. In fact, I ended up switching out the lights at 11:30 p.m. – exactly 34 hours after I had last slept.

I knew I needed my rest because a big… BIG fight day was in my immediate future.

*

Photo / John Gichigi-Getty Images

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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