Lee Groves

Travelin Man goes to Dallas – Part I

Undefeated lightweight prospect Terence Crawford (left) flexes during his face-off with Alejandro Sanabria shortly after the weigh-in for their HBO-televised fight on June 15. The story of the show, however, would headliner Mikey Garcia’s failure to make weight.

 

Thursday, June 13: Two-and-a-half days after last week’s six-day boxing odyssey (IBHOF weekend/Montreal/IBHOF weekend), the Travelin’ Man returned to the road, this time to work the CompuBox keys for HBO’s doubleheader that paired Mikey Garcia-Juan Manuel Lopez and Terence Crawford-Alejandro Sanabria. I spent many of those hours scrambling to disassemble the last trip’s debris while also trying to reassemble myself for this one. Unpacking, packing and dealing with a plethora of professional loose ends made time go inordinately fast, for before I knew it it was time to go again.

For the second consecutive trip Mother Nature’s wrath shaped the flying environment. Last week it was tropical storm Angela’s trek up the East Coast that influenced the timing of my Sunday return to Canastota from Montreal while here the vaunted “derecho” that created chaos in the Midwest and my native Mid-Ohio Valley posed a considerable threat on several levels.

Based on the media coverage, I braced for Armageddon, especially since last year’s derecho had caused so much destruction and in around my hometown of Friendly, West Virginia. In between watching the triple-overtime classic in Game One of the Stanley Cup finals that saw the Chicago Blackhawks edge the Boston Bruins 3-2, I switched to the Weather Channel and my local news to monitor the system’s progress. By 2 a.m. nothing much had happened in my area and during my six-hour sleep I heard only occasional thunderclaps. In the end Friendly was fortunate: Aside from some high straight-line winds and some spurious thunderstorms the derecho barely landed a glove.

Thunderstorms and I have had a sordid history. Over the years lightning strikes claimed the giant C-band satellite dish that served me for more than a decade as well as not one but two flat-screen TVs – on the same day. After that expensive encounter I’ve made sure to unplug all my appliances at the first hint of thunder. You can’t be too careful, you know?

The meteorological instability settled itself by the time I started my drive toward Pittsburgh International Airport shortly after 11 a.m. Despite making separate stops to mail a package and acquire a diet soda I reached the airport in plenty of time.

Ever have those days when the synergy of personal competence and circumstance reach an unusual peak? This was one of those. As I proceeded through security I unpacked and re-packed with lightning-like efficiency and caught the tram just before it rolled in. I had plenty of time to eat a pre-flight snack at Subway and as I waited for my direct flight to Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW for short) the words flowed onto the laptop’s screen with even more fluidity than usual. And yet, given the pratfalls I’ve experienced over the past seven-plus years, I couldn’t help but think that with this surge of good vibes I felt I was being softened up for some nastiness on the backside.

If that was the case, it didn’t happen on the flight. First, I drew an aisle seat, which is always good. Second, while the flight departed 25 minutes later than the advertised time, there were only two minor incidents of turbulence and touchdown occurred very close to the original time. Finally, I had a pretty interesting seatmate, a native of India in the energy business who had traveled this Dallas-to-Pittsburgh route every week since March 2012. On this day he was traveling with his son and said they were to fly back to their homeland the following day – a two-day journey that included eight-hour and 10-hour legs. I also knew he was a good man at heart. Why? Despite all the frequent flier miles he’s accumulated, he allowed his son to have the window seat while he occupied the dreaded middle.

HBO Travel sent me an e-mail yesterday that I was to share a rental car with Zaque (pronounced Zack) Meyers, the lead utility person for this show, because our flights were scheduled to land within one minute of each other. While my flight touched down in Dallas roughly on time, weather issues forced a ground stop in Atlanta that delayed Zaque’s. Since I landed first – and because I had no idea what Zaque looked like – I told him via text I would meet him at his gate instead of the rental car counter, making sure to tell him I was wearing a camouflage-themed Boxing Hall of Fame T-shirt so I could be easily spotted. The ploy worked.

Zaque, who to me bears a facial and attitudinal resemblance (in a good way) to comedian Dennis Miller, was told his rental car was a Mitsubishi but when we walked to the appointed parking spot we saw a Chevy minivan. In all my travels I don’t recall having seen this happen, so we returned to the counter and, after pointing out the error, was reassigned a red Nissan Altima. With the help of the GPS app on his phone, Zaque flawlessly navigated us to the hotel and by 8:30 p.m. I was unpacked and settled in.

I spent the rest of the evening alternating between Game 4 of the NBA finals between the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs (Miami tied the series at two games apiece with a smashing 109-93 win) on ABC and ESPN’s SportsCenter while also sneaking in some rounds on the laptop. An unusually quiet travel day ended for me at the same time it did chronologically – midnight.

Friday, June 14: Although I stirred at 5:30 a.m., I stayed in a state of semi-sleep until arising at 8. I peeked through the shades and saw bright sunshine, always an encouraging sign. Given the way the people dressed the mercury was probably past the 80s on the way to a predicted high of 96. Unlike back home, there was no chance of rain.

After getting ready for the day and threading through my usual battery of web sites, I headed downstairs in search of a late-morning breakfast. As I wended my way through the lobby a solitary figure sitting at a small table near a coffee shop took notice of the shirt I was wearing: A bright red number I purchased at the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s gift shop last week that read “Boxing is In My Blood.” He invited me to join him and, of course, I accepted his invitation.

I learned his name was Angel Martinez and that he was part of the team associated with Mexican Olympian and undefeated featherweight prospect Oscar Valdez, who was scheduled to fight a six rounder against Gil Garcia, a 5-4-1 (1) Houston product who had hit on hard times recently by going 0-3-1 in his last four. With his shoulder-length black hair, a trim physique sculpted by construction work and crinkly features, he bore a resemblance to Hall of Fame welterweight king Carlos Palomino as he was in his mid-30s.

We spent the next hour telling our respective stories and as we did so, other members of Valdez’s team stopped by, including the fighter’s father. At this point I had planned to catch a cab to the American Airlines Arena to attend the weigh-in but that changed after Angel invited me to catch the bus to the arena with him. I gave him one of my newly minted business cards while I entered his number in my cell phone.

That done, I walked over to the Coffee’s Post to buy my first meal of the day – a turkey sandwich, sour cream and onion chips and a Diet Pepsi, otherwise known as the Breakfast of Champions (I can hear you now: If that’s the Breakfast of Champions then why are you eating it?. Yeah, yeah, yeah.) I noticed that a cup of guacamole was included in the sandwich, something I had never tried before. I had always been reluctant to sample it because of the green coloring but my reporter’s curiosity got the better of me. I tentatively dipped a piece of turkey into the cup and once I tasted it I came out the other side as a guacamole fan. The moral: You can’t learn if you don’t try.

I returned to the room to consume my bounty, surf the web, watch some TV and catch up on my writing. Since I rely heavily on my memory when writing about these trips I must put my thoughts down in writing while the memories are still fresh; otherwise they fade into the ether.

Once I reached a good stopping place I packed the laptop and went down to the lobby, where a throng of boxing people awaited to board the buses to the American Airlines Center located about a mile from the hotel. While I waited I talked with Angel as well as writer/broadcaster-turned-museum curator Rich Marotta and veteran trainer Lenny DeJesus. DeJesus and I immediately connected because of our shared knowledge of the “Tomorrow’s Champions” group of the early 1980s – Alex Ramos, Johnny Bumphus, Tony Ayala and Bobby Czyz. DeJesus was there while I was a captivated teen-aged TV viewer. Our memories of the early Totowa Ice World cards and Ramos’ exploits as a four-time New York Golden Gloves champion flowed like fine wine and within minutes a friendship was created. That’s the power of boxing – and of commonality.

After I stepped off the bus I was given an orange wristband that allowed access to the weigh-in. Little did I know that I was about to bear witness to a big story.

When Garcia stepped on the scale and weighed a shocking 128 – two pounds over the featherweight championship limit – we all looked at each other with surprise in our eyes. Garcia’s body already looked thin and dried out and we wondered amongst ourselves how he could sweat off two more pounds. Once Lopez scaled a fit-and-ready 125¼, I turned to seatmates Jeff Zimmerman of Fightnews.com on my left and junior middleweight Ryan Davis to my right (who was about to weigh in for his own fight with Vanes Martirosyan) and said “hear that sound? That’s the sound of the odds dropping.”

Garcia didn’t look the least bit surprised at this development. He didn’t rage about the accuracy of the scale as Eddie Mustafa Muhammad did before his eventually cancelled rematch with Michael Spinks; he simply looked down, exited the stage, exchanged pleasantries with well-wishers and walked out into the 90-plus degree heat. He had two hours to boil down to 126 or else he would lose his championship on the scale. While I awaited Garcia’s return, I hung out with Ashley Ferrara – a onetime Ring Card Girl of the Month for THE RING as well as a law school graduate – as well as one of the members of the Texas boxing commission.

At 2:35 p.m. – a little more than an hour later – Garcia re-entered the room and the remainder of the media swarmed toward the stage to see the expected re-weighing.

It never happened.

Garcia spoke briefly with commissioners and promoters, stepped behind the podium to sign some paperwork, then walked out of the room. Moments later I overheard the worst three words one can hear at a weigh-in: “The fight’s off?”

“The rest of the card will go on,” said Top Rank’s Bob Arum with a mix of solemnity and disappointment in his voice. “But the main event has been cancelled.”

Boom!

I immediately called CompuBox president Bob Canobbio to give him the news. We both thought the same thing: Get to the production truck and let the HBO brass know what was going on. Within minutes I was inside the control room and was breaking the news, which was received with mild surprise but not panic. After all, a similar situation unfolded last summer in Cincinnati when Adrien Broner weighed three-and-a-half pounds heavy before his WBO junior lightweight title fight with Vicente Escobedo. Following many tense hours an agreement was struck and the fight went on, with Broner scoring a resounding fifth round TKO. There was little reason to believe that some sort of compromise wouldn’t be struck, for a lot of money and prestige was on the line. The prospect of losing cash can move mountains like nothing else can.

With lightning speed, those mountains (made of dollars of course) were moved toward Lopez’s side of the table, reportedly $150,000 of them. Less than a half hour later HBO graphics guru Matt Maxson stepped out of the production truck and announced “the fight’s back on.” He got the news from Top Rank’s Twitter feed, a modern medium, but it took some old-fashioned horse-trading to breathe life back into the fight.

In my eyes, these developments added several new variables to what, for me, seemed a simple equation that would result in a late-round TKO win for Garcia. In recent fights Lopez appeared to be a waning force, for his punches lacked the snap of old and his defensive numbers were waning. For example, Mike Oliver out-landed JuanMa 39-27 overall and connected on a surprising 53 percent of his power shots before being blasted out in two rounds while Orlando Salido connected on 38 percent and 40 percent of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts in their two fights.

Meanwhile, Garcia covered his only known vulnerability – slow starts over the first three rounds of many recent fights – by turning on the jets from round four onward, jets that usually burned his opponents to a crisp. But with the weight problems, which, from my outsider’s viewpoint appeared to be the result of the lanky Garcia growing out of the weight class, Garcia would have two strategic decisions to make, both of which carry risks.

The first option would be to try and take out Lopez early to exploit his defensive issues, but if JuanMa survived the opening assault would Garcia have anything left for the later rounds? The second option would be to follow his usual path of gathering reconnaissance early then pound Lopez into submission later on, but again, the physical toll of his weight-making might dull his usual drive. Given these variables, Garcia probably – and perhaps correctly – figured that shedding the two pounds would compromise him too much. Instead he chose to jettison the 10 pounds that had previously been strapped around his waist – the WBO featherweight title belt.

I grabbed some snacks from the production truck area, found a seat in the top row of the lower deck of the main arena and created a makeshift work station. When I finished I glanced at the top of the arena where various championship banners commemorating the Dallas Stars’ achievements hung. At the center was a giant black banner trimmed with gold around the border, a gold-colored Dallas Stars logo and NHL shield and silver lettering that read “Stanley Cup Champions” in the center and “1998-99” along the bottom. Unlike boxing, whose champions are transitory and always shifting, championship banners in other sports are forever.

I took a taxi back to the hotel, shortly after which I received a text from punch-counting colleague Andy Kasprzak that he arrived at the hotel safe and sound. He stopped by the room to pick up his credential, a DVD I made for him and a gift – a t-shirt from the IBHOF that bore the inscription “Eat, Sleep, Breathe Boxing.”

The next couple of hours were spent watching ESPN’s Friday Night Fights, which turned out to be a pretty good action card. I then took the elevator down to the lobby in the hopes of grabbing a diet soda but instead I ran into Angel and a couple of friends in the lobby, after which I was asked to join an impromptu roundtable that included Miguel Diaz, fellow Pittsburgh Steelers die-hard Brad Goodman and Brad Jacobs among others. Names and memories from the distant past were tossed about and I more than held my own in terms of Diaz’s guessing games. Here’s one example.

Question: What maneuver was Sammy Fuentes best known for?

Answer: Bouncing up and down so that the top of his shoulder butted his opponents. In fact, Fuentes once broke Tony Martin’s jaw that way.

So what began as a five-minute trip to get a soda turned out to be two-and-a-half hours of conversational bliss. Go figure.

I ended up buying the soda from a vending machine and ate some goodies I picked up earlier at the production truck, after which I turned out the lights on another long day.

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Photos / 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.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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