Lee Groves

Travelin’ Man returns to Verona – Part I

Friday, Nov. 15: In boxing, as in life, timing is everything.

One never knows when he or she will be blessed or cursed by it until the very moment it happens. Only then can it be perceived properly and only then are we commanded to accept or cope.

That certainly could be said of the matchmakers at Main Events, who were confronted with an example of bad timing Tuesday afternoon when Tomasz Adamek – the centerpiece of NBC-televised card from the Turning Stone Casino in Verona, N.Y. and the show that I’ll be working on this trip – had fallen ill with a stomach virus. The next day Main Events announced the new main event would pit Vyacheslav Glazkov – Adamek’s original opponent – with Philadelphia cruiserweight Garrett Wilson.

Imagine: A prohibitive underdog from Philadelphia is plucked out of obscurity to fight a better-known opponent with a shot at the big time. I wonder where we’ve heard that story before? The only question is whether Wilson could summon his own Rocky-esque fairy tale.

Wilson’s inclusion had its pros and cons. The positives included (1) he was available and within close proximity of Verona; (2) according to Boxrec.com Wilson was already training for a Dec. 6 fight against Hamilton Ventura, and (3) although he sported a modest 13-6-1 (7) record, he had won five in a row before losing his most recent fight in Romania against lanky Russian southpaw Alexander Alekseev. Mitigating those factors were these: (1) Wilson had never been on American TV so his name recognition amongst even the hardest of hard cores was virtually nil, a definite negative when headlining a card on free, over-the-air TV; (2) At 5-9 and a confirmed cruiserweight, Wilson spotted six inches and 18 pounds to the 2008 Olympic super heavyweight bronze medalist, and (3) against the far taller Alekseev, Wilson had terrible problems getting inside the Russian’s longer arms, which inhibited his output and limited his strategic options.

Main Events and NBC surely weighed everything before deciding to green-light Wilson. TV dates for boxing, especially those on NBC and CBS, are extremely rare and extraordinarily valuable. Any opportunity to showcase the sport is treasured and even more so when one considers the millions who have access to NBC. Yes, it would have been nice for a crossroads fight like Adamek-Glazkov to lead the show, but with Adamek’s absence the story lines suddenly shifted to Glazkov’s continued development, Wilson’s hopes for a startling upset and the undercard fight that paired undefeated lightweights Karl Dargan (13-0, 7 knockouts) and Michael Brooks (12-0, 2 KOs). The card might have lost its star power but that didn’t mean other interesting tales couldn’t be told. For me, that’s just another reason why boxing is so magnetic.

After arriving at the airport I was granted an instance of brilliant timing. As I pulled into the gate to secure a ticket for the extended parking lot, a black van settled into the gate to my immediate right. Dozens of previous visits combined with my observational skills enabled me to shoot out of my gate a full second ahead of the competition and safely weave in front of him. As usual, I turned to my right and made my way down the first row of the lot in search of an empty space. Foolishly, the van decided to follow me. I say foolishly because I know finding one open space in a row close to the terminal entrance is a crap shoot at best, much less finding two. Had I lost the race I would have begun my search at the next set of rows.

As I neared the row’s three-quarters mark I noticed a car backing out and leaving the area, which meant that a prime parking space had just opened up. This never happens! Knowing a great opportunity when I saw one, I slowed my pace to a crawl to make sure I didn’t overshoot the vacancy. A few moments later, I glanced to my left and saw the gap. It was a beauty — one row past the 11A sign (the nearest sign to the terminal entrance in the extended lot), fourth space from the end. I pulled in, wrote the location on my stub in black magic marker, then pumped my fist and let out a silent cheer. The walk from spot to door was 125 steps (yes, I counted them. What else would you expect from a punch-counter?).

For the second consecutive trip, the configuration within Pittsburgh International Airport had changed. First, the location of the security line for “preferred” travelers had shifted from the far left side to the far right side, a change I didn’t notice until I had mistakenly walked into the line for general passengers. And second, the route to the “B” terminal had been altered but unlike my last trip to Atlantic City new signage eliminated any confusion. I reached my gate with more than an hour to spare and I spent that time surfing the net and writing the first few paragraphs of this article.

Unfortunately, the run of good timing ended on my first plane ride. Traffic issues in Philadelphia caused our plane to sit on the runway for more than 40 minutes, but I wasn’t worried about making my connection because the layover in Philly was a comfortable 84 minutes. Aside from a couple of bumpy sequences, the flight was uneventful. A bonus: The late departure and the desire to make up time resulted in our touchdown occurring 10 minutes quicker than announced.

There’s a certain magic that comes with lowered expectations; if the goal is exceeded then one feels better about the final result in a situation that otherwise would have produced disappointment but if the expected scenario unfolds then one is able to accept the previously unacceptable. Politicians have played this game for years, but certainly not to perfection.

The plane taking us from Philadelphia to Syracuse was considerably smaller and the seats were more cramped. That cramping was exacerbated by my seatmate, a very nice but also very overweight woman. I tried my best to create sufficient space to ease our mutual discomfort and the result was my achy right shoulder (which I recently learned was the result of tendonitis) flared up a bit. Even so, I was just glad I had cleared another logistical hurdle.

Like Leg 1, Leg 2 featured some unsettling turbulence at the midway point of the 65-minute journey and touched down several minutes earlier than anticipated. My next step was to find the driver who would take me from Syracuse to the Turning Stone Casino. My only clue to his identity: He would be holding a sign bearing my last name.  

Of course, I couldn’t find him.

After spending several minutes walking around the terminal I dug out my memo and called production manager Frank Fernandez, who helped arrange my itinerary. He told me that the driver was just minutes away from the airport and to ease the process he gave me the driver’s name (D.J.) and texted his phone number. When I called D.J., he told me he had been looking for me for approximately 10 minutes. Once we agreed to a meeting spot, the rest was easy.

“Easy” – as well as “enjoyable” – could also describe the subsequent drive to the Turning Stone Casino’s Tower Hotel because D.J., a journalism student at Syracuse University, is a huge boxing fan. A native of Utah, D.J. knew the Fullmer family well and our conversation reached into the deepest recesses of boxing history. Time literally flew as the drive on the New York State Thruway was completed, according to D.J., in record time. After he dropped me off, D.J. went on to his next assignment: Picking up my punch-counting colleague Aris Pina at a Syracuse bus station. Given Aris’ boxing expertise, which in some areas exceeds mine, I’m sure that drive will proceed even more quickly.

After settling into my hotel room on the 12th floor, I ventured out to secure a mid-evening snack. I ended up going to a previous favorite – the Stone Street Deli – and ordering a half-pound turkey sandwich, a small bag of Ruffles chips and a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Pepsi. I took my bounty to the room and munched away as I alternated between college football games, SportsCenter and cable news shows.

Knowing I had an unusually early 9 a.m. call time to accommodate the unusually early 12:10 start of the pre-taped undercard fights, I turned out the lights shortly before 1 a.m.

Saturday, Nov. 16: I might have turned out the lights but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to go to sleep. My mind was on fire with various thoughts I simply couldn’t quiet and as a result it took me more than an hour to finally drop off.

I stirred awake 15 minutes before my 7:30 a.m. target time and by 8:15 I had completed the usual morning routines. I spent the next 25 minutes catching up on my writing, after which I headed down to the Turning Stone’s arena.

Recently I had been lucky in terms of completing the usual electronic hook-ups, for during my last few shows I got the tell-tale green light in less than five minutes’ time. Senior punch-counter Joe Carnicelli is particularly fortunate in this regard and for that I often kid him. I, on the other hand, have had a far more difficult time as the process occasionally took hours and even a layover day. Today it took about two hours to work out the kinks but once it was working it functioned perfectly for the rest of the day.

I passed the time at ringside the way I always do: By chatting with ringsiders. I saw several familiar faces in Boxing Bob Newman (who was writing for Fightnews.com), Corey Erdman (RingTV.com’s deadline writer), perennial Hall of Fame weekend attendee Zbigniew Marzsalek (who subsequently, and graciously, gave me a T-shirt he caught from one of the ring girls between fights) and the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s Jeff Brophy. One new face but familiar name I met was judge Wynn Kintz, who regaled me with several entertaining stories about Willie Pep. (An aside: If Kintz had run for political office I would have had the perfect slogan – “With a Name Like Wynn, How Could We Lose?” As usual, I digress.)

Newman approached me bearing gifts from his recent trip to Bangkok for the 50th annual WBC convention: A commemorative souvenir carry-bag, a program and – best of all – autographed photos of Antonio Cermeno and Venice Borkhorsor. The Borkhorsor autograph was particularly appreciated, for I’ve always had have a soft spot for sub-bantamweights from the 1970s.

I was in the middle of catching up with another longtime acquaintance – main event referee and onetime golfing partner Dick Pakodzi – when I was given a meal ticket and told I had to use it between 10:45 and 11:45 a.m. The time: 10:47. By this time Aris had arrived at ringside and when I gave him his credential and meal ticket we were off to the Season’s Harvest Buffet. One hour later we were back at ringside to prepare for the start of the five-bout card.

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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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