Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Atlantic City – Part I

Bernard Hopkins enters the ring before his IBF light heavyweight title defense against Karo Murat at Boardwalk Hall Arena on Oct. 26 in Atlantic City, N.J.

 

 

Friday, Oct. 25 – After nearly two months at the Home Office, the Travelin’ Man is traveling again.

Ever since I returned from my most recent trip to Indio, Calif. Sept. 8 – a journey that saw me witness Chris Arreola’s crushing knockout of Seth Mitchell and Rafael Marquez’s swan song against the victorious Efrain Esquivias — each day has been thoroughly immersed in the Sweet Science in one way or another. Whether it’s writing and researching historical articles for RingTV.com, compiling data for CompuBox or tending to the always growing DVD collection, boredom is never an issue. In fact, by the end of most days, which for me end around 3:00 a.m., I feel as if I could have done even more.

Although I enjoy my time at home I still look forward to the next adventure, whenever or wherever it’ll take me. Yes, I do have my issues from time to time but there are far more positives than negatives. When things go wrong, I tell myself two things; first, at least I have an interesting story to tell and second, I could still be working at my previous job.  In fact, had a few random life threads not happened I may still be there.

When CompuBox President Bob Canobbio told me I was going to work the Showtime Championship Boxing card topped by Bernard Hopkins’ IBF light heavyweight title defense against Karo Murat I was thrilled. When I found out it was to be staged in Atlantic City, I again was happy because of the city’s historic place in boxing. During the 1980s and 1990s, Atlantic City was, along with Las Vegas, the centerpiece of the sport’s casino era. Hundreds of fight cards, televised and untelevised, were conducted at sites such as the Atlantis Hotel & Casino, Bally’s Atlantic City, Harrah’s Marina Hotel & Casino, the Playboy Hotel & Casino, Resorts International, the Sands, the Showboat and the Taj Mahal as well as the more familiar sites like Caesars, Trump Plaza and the Tropicana. I vividly remember watching the opening segments of ESPN’s “Top Rank Boxing” series that featured aerial shots of Atlantic City followed by a long shot of the ring, the accompanying opening graphic detailing the locale and the sight of Barry Tompkins and Al Bernstein setting the stage for the night to come.

Now that Tompkins and Bernstein work with Showtime – the former is the lead broadcaster for the Showtime Extreme cards while the latter is the analyst for Showtime Championship Boxing – the circle continues. Both will be on site as this will be an Extreme/SCB doubleheader, though for this show Tompkins will assume Brian Kenny’s studio host role because of Kenny’s World Series duty. I never thought back then that I’d ever get the chance to meet them, much less work with them. What was even more bizarre to me was that in our first face-to-face meeting at the 2010 International Boxing Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, it was Bernstein who recognized me first because of the picture on the cover of my book “Tales From the Vault.” We taped an interview for Boxing Channel that was never aired, but the experience, from my perspective, was beyond surreal.

While I was happy to be returning to Atlantic City for the first time since May 2009, I had more than a twinge of trepidation. That twinge had nothing to do with AC itself but rather my past troubles with what I needed to do to get there and back: First, navigate the streets of Philadelphia in search of the correct path to the Atlantic City Expressway, and second, find the proper rental car facility during the return trip.

Longtime readers of the Travelin’ Man Chronicles know I’ve had more than my fair share of troubles getting around two particular metros – New York City and Philadelphia. My issues in New York are centered on the countless one-way streets as well as my dodge ball-like travails with packs of serial jaywalkers in downtown Manhattan. To me, they seem to be dictated by their impulses instead of the signs and traffic signals that control us motorists.

As for Philly, the home of my favorite NBA team and the spiritual home of American boxing, my woes are purely logistical. I don’t know if it’s the traffic patterns or I have trouble recognizing the proper highway signs but for whatever reason I end up getting lost at least once before somehow righting myself. Even when I’m armed with the navigational equivalent of a belt and suspenders – a GPS and Mapquest directions – smooth, uneventful trips are a rarity.

Jack Dempsey had his Willie Meehan. Muhammad Ali had his Ken Norton. And The Travelin’ Man has “The Big Apple” and “The City of Brotherly Love” – or at least its highways.

If that wasn’t enough, I also needed to turn my body clock upside down within a single day. Ever since childhood I’ve been a night owl by nature; in recent years I rise around 8:30 a.m. and, following a brief nap to shake off that 6:30 feeling, I end up going to bed around 3 a.m. However, as the “lead dog” for this show, I needed to be present at Boardwalk Hall by 4 p.m. Friday to make certain all was electronically sound for the show and the only flight that would allow me to comfortably carry out that mandate was the 10:16 a.m. from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. Because it takes me two-and-a-half hours to drive to the airport and because I had to account for the Steel City’s rush hour traffic, I had to arise at 4:40 a.m. If ever a person could have jet lag without leaving his own time zone or boarding a jet, it was me on this day.

To help the process I skipped the customary snooze on Thursday and turned out the lights a little after 11 p.m., all the while trying to talk myself into thinking it was four hours later. Following some initial struggles I eventually drifted off.

The plan worked; I awoke at 4:35 a.m. and dozed a few minutes before getting out of bed. Once I got ready for the day I overheard the TV weatherman reporting on the thick layer of frost that covered the cars in the station’s parking lot. That prompted me to look outside, and, wouldn’t you know it, my car was frost-bitten as well.

The joys of impending winter; all I could do was shake my head in resignation.

I trudged out into the 30-degree darkness with an unfamiliar last-quarter moon overhead, started the car, turned up the defroster full blast and scraped away whatever frost I could. Once I returned inside my glasses immediately fogged over and for a few moments I was temporarily blinded. It was a lovely way to start the day.

A few minutes into the drive, another ever-present West Virginia After Dark danger presented itself – sudden and unexpected deer crossings. In my nearly 33 years of driving, wayward deer have damaged my car twice – both within a three-week period. Based on many more near-misses I’m convinced that either their night vision isn’t what everyone says it is or that they’re infernally stupid. Either way, their presence causes smart drivers to maintain a sharp eye and thank God I was on point here, for a doe ran in front of my car from the left and, worse yet, another car was directly behind me at the time. If that vehicle had been following me any closer I would have been forced to make a terrible choice – either hit the deer or risk being rear-ended. I was relieved neither scenario happened; I tapped the brake enough to let the deer go by and the tailing car reacted swiftly to my reaction.

As expected, I encountered the morning rush a few miles before my next-to-last off-ramp as well as on the final road toward the airport. For the next half-hour my speed ranged from 10 to 35 mph until I finally broke free as I neared the airport exit. Thanks to my advance planning, I arrived precisely at my goal time of 8:15.

I couldn’t find a parking space that was close to the terminal entrance, so I settled for a spot near the 13E sign in the “extended parking” lot, which required a five-minute walk amidst skies that spat out occasional snow flurries.

Once I passed through security and reached the top of the escalator, I noticed the airport’s interior had changed significantly since my last visit. A new clothing store had claimed a large chunk of the previously open route toward the B concourse so it took me a few moments to ascertain the proper route toward my gate. After that was done, I stopped by the McDonald’s to indulge in another unfamiliar activity – breakfast. That’s because on most days I don’t have my first meal until between noon and 1 p.m.

I ordered an Egg McMuffin and a Diet Coke, found a small table away from the hustle and bustle, dug into my laptop case and pulled out my latest reading project, “Dynasty’s End: Bill Russell and the 1968-69 World Champion Boston Celtics” by Thomas J. Whalen. As a Sixers fan, I know reading a book lauding the Celtics is nothing short of anathema, but while I revile the concept of Celtic wins against the Sixers I respect their players and their historic success. I particularly admired Russell’s intelligence, thoughtfulness and athletic prowess and the intervening years have only increased my high regard for him. Excellence, no matter what the source, is something to be appreciated. I would experience that dynamic again the next night during the Hopkins fight, but that’s a story I’ll save for Part Two.

The flight departed and landed on time and I managed to rest my eyes for a bit before starting my second long drive of the day. After I settled into my rental car – a white Volkswagen Jetta – I found my trusty Magellan GPS and attempted to enter the hotel’s address. Note the word “attempted,” for whatever reason my device didn’t recognize what I was trying to type in.

So much for Plan A.

I later learned from stage manager Nickol Scott that the hotel’s address had changed to 2 Miss America Way, an address my GPS would have accepted. Live and learn…live and learn.

Thank goodness I had a Plan B – the driving directions included in the Showtime production memo. Past experience taught me that Mapquest-generated instructions should be approached with profound skepticism so while I occasionally consulted its dictums I also kept watch for telltale road signs and landmarks. Without the GPS, I felt as if I were driving by Braille.

Less than five minutes into the drive I thought I had taken a disastrously wrong turn but as I scanned down the directions I saw a sign that said “To I-76.” I breathed a sigh of relief because according to the directions I needed to be on that road later on, for I-76 eventually became New Jersey State Route 42 South, which, in turn, would take me directly to the Atlantic City Expressway.

Somehow, someway, I had managed to swerve into the correct route out of Philadelphia. Who knew?

Once safely on the Expressway my next goal was to find the hotel. According to the printed directions it required several quick left turns in fairly tight quarters so I braced myself for the coming complications. But once I reached the city limits I saw the targeted building to my immediate left, so I knew I was on the right track. I had some initial problems ascertaining that the Convention Center’s parking garage across the street also served hotel guests so I ended up circling the block a second time. Otherwise, it was an astonishingly successful and simple drive.

After checking in and eating lunch at one of the nearby establishments I prepared for the next potentially stressful part of the day – finding Boardwalk Hall and the designated Showtime parking area near the TV trucks. In previous years I had trouble identifying where Boardwalk Hall actually was since there is no giant sign announcing its presence as there is on most buildings in Atlantic City and my Magellan didn’t have the address listed on the memo – 2301 Boardwalk — among its choices. So once again I was without GPS guidance.

And once again I managed to scratch my way there, although I didn’t find the garage area reserved for Showtime crew members until my second attempt. When the security guard asked for proof I was with Showtime I showed him the memo. Not only did he wave me through, he pleasantly volunteered some advice in terms of where to park within the cavernous area.

The pre-card electronic checks went shockingly well, for in less than five minutes’ time I received confirmation everything was in working order. I could have left the arena 15 minutes after I got there but I ended up staying a half-hour longer in order to get credentials for punch-counting colleague Aris Pina and myself as well as gab a bit with some of the crew.

I couldn’t have asked for a better result. I had managed to make the Philly-to-AC trip — doing so without GPS help — and everything went well at the arena. Because I’m not a gambling man or a nightclub guy, I chose to spend the rest of the evening in my hotel room alternating between the BYU-Boise State game on ESPN and several cable news shows. Other than grabbing an early-evening snack at the Gulf gas station, I stayed indoors and turned out the lights a little after midnight.

Saturday, Oct. 26: Most of the next eight-and-a-half hours were spent in unusually sound slumber. I say “most” because for the better part of an hour I involuntarily overheard a raging argument by one couple staying down the hall sometime after 5:30 a.m. I suppose I could have called the front desk to complain but I simply didn’t feel like moving, much less speaking to someone. Eventually they quieted down and so did I.

The rest did me a world of good and by the time I arose I felt refreshed and ready to go. I spent most of the morning catching up on the writing I should have done the previous evening and when I reached a good stopping point I felt the usual satisfaction that comes with finishing a project.

Shortly before I reached that point my cell phone rang. It was Aris, who was traveling to Atlantic City by bus, and he told me that he wouldn’t be dropped off at Caesars until between 1 and 1:15. Since he had to check into the hotel anyway, we decided it would be best to meet in the lobby and drive over to Boardwalk Hall together instead of meeting at Boardwalk Hall. Since our arrival time was going to be a bit after our official 1 p.m. call time, I called Canobbio and our contacts at the arena to let them know what was going on. Since our call time was a full six hours before the Showtime Extreme telecast, and because yesterday’s pre-fight test had gone so well, we felt we had a bit of leeway (no pun intended).

To pass the time I walked to a Subway outlet and got my usual – a six-inch turkey sub on Italian bread with mozzarella, lettuce, tomato, green pepper, banana peppers and light mayo. It was a glorious sunny day with no clouds to be seen but the blustery winds caused the flags atop the parking garage to flap wildly.

At 12:45, Aris texted me that his bus had arrived, a good sign since it was at least 15 minutes earlier than expected. A half-hour later we met in the lobby and headed to the arena. Thanks to yesterday’s dress rehearsal, the drive and the subsequent electronic hook-ups proceeded without incident. Aris and I spent much of the down time chatting about fighters as familiar as Henry Armstrong and Tony Canzoneri and as obscure as Saen Sor Ploenchit and Hiroki Ioka. I also said hello to familiar faces at ringside like Lem Satterfield and Bernard Fernandez and re-connected with those I haven’t seen in a while such as Dan Rafael.

I also spotted Angel Garcia, the loquacious father of RING junior welterweight champion Danny Garcia, chatting with some technicians so I decided to walk over and introduce myself. Garcia was there to support his young daughter, who was in the ring rehearsing the national anthem (which she sang very well). In one-on-one conversation, Garcia is far from the profanely volcanic persona he projects at press conferences. In fact, he’s the complete opposite. After my brief conversation with him, other ringsiders confirmed what I thought: He’s a really nice guy. As I suspected, the raging maniac we see in public is just an extremely amped-up version of his personality designed to draw heat on himself and away from his son, who also was at ringside during the telecast.

After eating the crew meal upstairs, Aris and I returned to ringside to prepare for what we figured was a long but potentially eventful night at the fights.

*

Photos / Maddie Meyer-Getty Images, Ethan Miller-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 three 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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