Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Vegas – part I

Of all the athletic virtues, adaptability is one of the most treasured. The ability to successfully conquer challenges by shifting gears on the fly is an invaluable asset and every triumph serves to fortify one’s mental strength and self-confidence.

Boxers, in particular, are thrown into the fire during their earliest days because most amateur tournaments are conducted with blind draws while those who turn pro early are forced to engage in “swing fights” that demand they be ready at a moment’s notice during cards that can exceed four hours in length.

These challenges also extend to those who don’t have to take punches for a living. Chief seconds must be able to conjure and articulate alternate strategies in case Plan A fails while promoters, matchmakers and TV networks are often called upon to reshuffle when the original itinerary turns to rubble.

Such was the case for last week’s ShoBox: The New Generation card in Las Vegas. The original plan was to air a triple-header topped by IBF junior middleweight titleholder Ishe Smith’s first defense against Carlos Molina but because “Sugar Shay” suffered a cut right eye during sparring it was announced July 2 that the fight was postponed. After some deliberation, it was decided the rest of the card would proceed with the two supporting bouts moving up a slot. The final result was a double-header that satisfied the prime directive of ShoBox: Competitive cross-roads matches pitting up either two up-and-comers or prospects against veterans who remain a punch away from re-igniting their stars.

The co-feature that paired super middleweights Badou Jack and Farah Ennis was an example of the former while the main event that matched lightweights Mickey Bey and John Molina epitomized the latter. The quartet’s combined record of 78-5-1 reflects the talent showcased on the card and the mix of styles promised an interesting night for those who chose to either turn out or tune in.

No one could have known the extraordinary spectacle they were about to witness at the close of Molina-Bey and the scenes around ringside were something to behold. Those will be presented in detail in Part II.

On a much less important and on a far less physically risky scale, the Travelin’ Man also had to make adjustments during this latest journey, both aeronautically and circumstantially. While there were some headaches and frustrations along the way, there also were several pleasant surprises.

So without further delay, let the storytelling begin:

Thursday, July 18: The 32 days that elapsed between the end of Dallas trip and my return to Las Vegas have flown by too quickly. That’s what happens when your day-to-day schedule is stuffed with a succession of “do-it-now” tasks.

Between the CompuBox pre-fight research for the myriad of August cards the company will work (I always try to stay a month ahead to keep the conveyor belt moving at a manageable speed), I also need to keep up with my video-related responsibilities such as recording, editing and burning DVDs, updating the master list and fulfilling outside requests as well as writing and researching the “10-List” articles for RingTV.com. As a result, every day is a full day and boxing is always at the center.

I couldn’t have asked for a better life, much less a better second career following my 17-year stint as a copyeditor at the Parkersburg News & Sentinel in Parkersburg, West Virginia.  As the T-shirt I’m wearing says, “boxing is in my blood,” and each day is focused squarely on it. Moreover, my jobs with CompuBox and RingTV.com align perfectly with my preferences and personality — a numbers nut who loves to travel.  Since April 27 I’ve been to Argentina, Canada and England as well as Oklahoma, Texas, New York and now Nevada. The RingTV.com gig, where I’m described as the resident historian and video collector, satisfies my desire to write creatively about boxing’s past and present while also speculating about its future.

All in all, I have been extremely blessed.

That said, being blessed doesn’t mean that all goes perfectly every day, nor should it. For instance, the itinerary for this latest journey was a bit more complex than I sought. Instead of the usual direct flight to Vegas on Southwest, I accepted an alternate lineup on Delta that had me connecting through Minneapolis on the way out and Atlanta on the way home. The departure times also were earlier than I preferred but, being a half-glass-full soul, I saw two bright sides. First, I’ll be able to add two more entries to the “2013 states visited” list, even if I’m in those states for a couple of hours. Second, if all goes well, I’ll arrive home in time to supervise the multiple fight card recordings that I usually do on Saturdays.

In order to catch my noon flight to “The Land of 10,000 Lakes,” this Travelin’ Man with the night-owl habits awoke at 6:20 a.m. and pulled out of the driveway at 7:30 amidst pea-soup fog that gave way to sticky mid-summer humidity. The drive to Pittsburgh International Airport was pleasantly uneventful and I received a stroke of excellent luck when I snagged a parking space less than 100 yards from the terminal entrance. A split second after exiting my air-conditioned car the heat-fueled steam clouded my lenses and rendered me temporarily blind. I adjusted by peering over my lenses until my spectacles cleared a few moments later.

After clearing security, I scanned the flight monitor and noticed something unusual: The plane coming in from Minneapolis was scheduled to land six minutes earlier than previously scheduled. Surely, I thought, that would improve my chances for an on-time departure.

Not so much: The flight took off a few minutes later than advertised. On a more positive note, however, I again was blessed with a pair of traveling companions who boasted a one-of-a-kind story.

Regular readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know that I’ve had excellent luck when it comes to seatmates and once again I hit pay dirt.  I occupied an aisle seat in row 16 while Tom and Virginia Shaffer (pronounced SHAY-fur) of Stonesboro, Pa., sat to my left. They were on their way to Minneapolis to catch a connecting flight to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after which they would drive just across the South Dakota-Minnesota border to attend a grandson’s wedding. During our getting-to-know-you small talk, however, Tom revealed his wife had once been declared the winner of a TV station’s drawing. What she won, however, more than grabbed my attention – two round-trip tickets to Miami to witness Super Bowl X between the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers and the Roger Staubach-led Dallas Cowboys.

“While we were living in North Versailles, Pa., which is located approximately 10 miles east of Pittsburgh, my mother entered her three daughters-in-law in the contest, which was held about a week before the game,” Tom recalled. “We were at a kid’s play and we were told we had an emergency phone call. My first thought was that one of the kids was hurt in an accident but it turned out we had won the contest. They had drawn my wife’s name out of a giant concrete mixer and later on Stan Savran (who then worked for WTAE-TV in Pittsburgh) came to our house with a TV crew and interviewed us.  We won two tickets to the game and air fare but no hotel. She didn’t want to go to the game, she wanted to go swimming, and I must have had 50 people calling to buy the tickets from us.”

The most amazing aspect of the adventure was that the trip from home to Miami and back unfolded in a single day. The couple drove to the airport early in the morning, flew directly to Miami, boarded a bus to the Orange Bowl and arrived about an hour before game time. They had excellent seats, for they were situated in the second level on the 40 yard line. Another surprise was in store and this one was less pleasant: While it was a relatively balmy 47 degrees in Pittsburgh, the temperature in Miami was a chilly (for Florida) 57, the sixth coldest Super Bowl to date.

“My wife packed a winter coat and I had a leather jacket and it was a good thing we brought them with us,” Tom said.

While Virginia didn’t care who won, Tom came home happy. That’s because the Steelers earned their second consecutive Super Bowl title 17-14 after holding off a patented Staubach-led comeback in the final seconds.

“Besides the game itself, one of the highlights was that as we were walking toward our bus to return directly to the airport, we found ourselves next to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, who were walking all hunched over because they were so cold, Tom recalled. “Our heads were spinning but we had a good time.”

The lively conversation caused the time to fly by. Additionally, the plane must have made up tons of time en route because it touched down a full half-hour ahead of its advertised 1:12 p.m. arrival time.

The Minneapolis-to-Las Vegas leg followed the same late departure/early arrival pattern and the only noticeable bumps occurred during our approach into “Sin City,” which, in my experience, is typical because of the winds that whip through the tree-less desert. Moments before the wheels touched down, my seatmates and I noticed a small plane resting near a sand dune, the obvious victim of an off-target landing. Thank goodness our aircraft didn’t meet the same fate.

For those who have never visited McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, the most striking feature is the hundreds of slot machines that line the walkways. There are many ways to fill one’s time while awaiting flights, especially now since airports are also state-of-the-art malls that feature numerous stores as well as a wide choice of restaurants, but I’ve yet to visit another airport that has gambling amongst its options. Based on the slot machines’ high occupancy rate the airport must rack up excellent daily profits.

Because of what happened on previous trips, I expected another long line at the taxi station. Of all the places I’ve visited, Las Vegas’ ground transportation section is among the busiest I’ve ever seen. During peak hours the queues snake through a half-dozen sectioned-off lanes, each of which requires one to walk 100 yards. Once he, she or they reach the head of the line, the taxi station gatekeeper inquires about the number of people in the given party, after which he assigns a numbered station to approach based on the taxi size. This process usually required a half-hour or more to complete and I braced myself for another long wait. The prospect of walking a quarter-mile in 106-degree heat added another layer of potential dread.

So imagine my surprise when I saw no lines at the station. In fact, there were more gatekeepers than customers. Within two minutes I was headed toward the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino and 10 minutes later I was standing in line at the registration desk.

I was assigned a room on the 16th floor of the Paradise Towers but after taking a glance at the clock radio I realized I had precious little time to catch the start of the 5 p.m. weigh-in, which was taking place at the Body English nightclub The customary upscale attire usually required for entry was temporarily suspended as dozens of fans and fight people crammed inside the relatively small area to witness the proceedings. I arrived just in time to see the first set of weigh-ins so there were no seats available in the first three rows. I spotted a section of unoccupied chairs near the center of row five, after which I settled in to observe the goings-on.

For those who don’t understand the appeal of boxing in the first place, it’s even more difficult to grasp why weigh-ins draw crowds. On their face, weigh-ins are rather drab spectacles but for those who love boxing they are utterly riveting. Those with trained eyes can assess a fighter’s physique and gauge his mannerisms to make an educated guess as to his mental state and, by extension, the likely result. Casual fans that only go to super-fight weigh-ins at 6,000-seat arenas come primarily to cheer their favorites and mix it up with other fans but those who really know the sport often sit in silence with their eyes peeled for tell-tale signs.

Unlike the last weigh-In I attended in which Mikey Garcia lost his featherweight title on the scales, all 16 fighters weighed within the proper parameters. There also was a minimum of trash talking between the combatants, though there was one incident of jawing between one fighter and members of his opponents’ entourage that were hurling smiling insults from the gallery. The target of their taunts, for the most part, shrugged off the barbs with a wave of the hand and exited the stage without incident. All in all, the event was rather tame by boxing standards and given the cramped conditions it was just as well.

Following the weigh-ins I said hello to Hall of Fame promoter J. Russell Peltz, Showtime executive producer Gordon Hall, Showtime analyst Raul Marquez, champion boxer-turned-trainer Israel Vazquez and Golden Boy matchmaker (and longtime chat room buddy) Robert Diaz, the man who introduced me to Vazquez. I then spotted writer/analyst (and, in my opinion, future Hall of Famer) Steve Farhood chatting with veteran female fighter Layla McCarter and Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports.

In person, the 5-foot-4 McCarter looks younger than her 34 years and seems amazingly unaffected by a 15-year, 53-fight pro career that has seen her forge a hard-earned 35-13-5 (8) record. The bright and engaging McCarter is in the midst of a career-long 12-fight winning streak dating back to May 2007 and in her last bout last September 30 she traveled to South Africa and produced a most successful road trip. Not only did she stop the previously unbeaten Noni Tenge in eight rounds, she also added a 154-pound belt to those she previously won at featherweight, lightweight and junior welterweight. More than once she whipped out her cell phone and showed the video of her knockout over Tenge, which could serve as her business card as well as her calling card. The powerful right-left to the face that felled Tenge indeed was impressive, especially given her low knockout ratio.

McCarter’s run of success, especially those against far naturally bigger fighters in their hometowns, has inspired several writers and publications to rank her the best female boxer on the planet regardless of weight. Determined to cement that point, McCarter’s sights are firmly fixed on two goals. The first is securing a fight against undefeated Norwegian Cecilia Braekhus, who others believe is the pound-for-pound queen, and the second is to have the fight on U.S. soil and televised by a premium cable network.

Any fight that pits the two best is a positive for boxing and in that vein let’s hope that greed, politics, pride or circumstance won’t get in the way as it had for so many superfights of the past such as Christy Martin-Lucia Rijker and Laila Ali-Ann Wolfe and, on the men’s side, Lennox Lewis-Riddick Bowe and Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao.

At first I was hesitant to embrace women’s boxing simply because I was unnerved by the sight of two women hitting each other. But as time went on, and the skill level escalated, I learned to appreciate their ferocity, talent, technique, drive and desire to please the fans. Also, for the most part, women fighters as a whole are more pugnacious and willing to take risks, resulting in entertaining and watchable scraps.

Female boxing is prominent around the world but, as is the case with the men’s game, it is not treated with the same respect in the United States. Ever since Laila Ali left the scene women’s boxing, a staple of U.S.-originated TV shows in the 1990s and early 2000s, has vanished on American screens but it continues to thrive across the rest of the globe. If McCarter has her way, her bout with Braekhus might be a candidate to re-light the fuse that Martin established nearly two decades ago.

Finally, a handful of women have assembled outstanding careers and I am hopeful that the International Boxing Hall of Fame eventually will create a category devoted to the women. That way, those who established the very best careers in terms of numbers and scope will receive their just due and establish their proper legacy.

Once I returned my room and finished unpacking, I walked across the street to Subway to grab an early-evening dinner. Because a very busy day awaited me, I decided to stay on East Coast time and retire shortly after 10 p.m.

*

Photos / Naoki Fukuda, Sandra Mu-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 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.com to arrange for autographed copies.

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