Lee Groves

The Stretch Drive: Travelin’ Man returns to New York City – Part I

Thursday, Nov. 21: Just four days after coming home from Verona, the Travelin’ Man was back on the road to begin the second of five trips that will run through Dec. 14. Today’s destination: New York City. The reason: To work Saturday’s HBO pay-per-view show topped by Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios.

“Wait a minute, isn’t that fight in Macau, China?” you may be asking. Indeed it is.

“So why are you going to New York instead of the Pacific Rim?” Another good question, and here’s the answer:

The CompuBox crew is at ringside for virtually every fight, but this card’s remote location necessitated a change of routine on two levels. First, CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and his son Nic, who both live in New York, would have normally handled this assignment but an exceptionally joyous occasion precipitated a change of plans – Nic is getting married on the day of the fight. Second, with father and son otherwise occupied, punch-counting colleague Aris Pina – a New York-based New Englander – and I were summoned from the bullpen.

The pace over recent days has been frenetic for a number of reasons. The primary cause was discovered moments after I arrived home from Verona when I turned on the computer in my home office and nothing happened.  When several reboots yielded the same result I summoned my computer-savvy sister Cindy, who, after trying several options, declared the device dead.

One could say it passed due to natural causes, for it housed a motherboard so old that it could have been the electronic equivalent of Methuselah. The six-year-old unit was a hand-me-down from Cindy, who purchased a more powerful device to accommodate her burgeoning 3-D modeling hobby. The machine had served me extremely well over the last three years and even though it had outlived its expected shelf life, its demise was still a nasty turn of events.

Fortunately for me, I had the foresight to back up many of my important files on a flash drive and before every trip I made it a habit to move over the files’ most up-to-date versions from my desktop to there. Thus, I lost virtually no important data and I was able to pick up where I left off in terms of my CompuBox research.

Life is all about adjusting to changing circumstances and after experiencing initial problems working within my laptop’s smaller screen I was able to move ahead and get all the time-sensitive work completed. With Bob Canobbio’s considerable help, as well as that of his computer guy, I ordered a new machine that will fulfill my various needs. If all goes well, it will be up and running by the time you read this.

I spent most of this morning dealing with the video work that was left undone by all the computer chaos – editing, burning and chronicling all the fights I had stored on my DVD recorder’s hard drive and a newly acquired DVR. Because the process took longer than expected, I began my journey 10 minutes later than I wanted. Since I give myself plenty of time to get where I need to go, this was not a major concern.

For late-November in West Virginia, driving conditions were excellent – the sky was slate gray but the temperature was in the mid-50s. As I drove the open road, I couldn’t help but appreciate the contrast between that and the cramped hustle-and-bustle that defines “The Big Apple.” As someone who grew up in an extremely rural setting – according to the latest U.S. Census Friendly, West Virginia’s population stood at 130 – New York City represents the ultimate counterpoint in terms of pace and space. As the world’s business epicenter, the never-ending commerce generates an energy that is unique to any other city on earth. The enormous cost of living requires an equally enormous effort first to make ends meet, then create fleets of ends.

Countless dreamers have come to New York to pursue their passions because it is the ultimate proving ground. If a person’s talent, industriousness and perseverance catch the right eyes, a door will be opened just enough for the dreamer to further prove his worth. With time and continued excellence, other doors leading to the ultimate success will be accessed. Only after those tests are passed will one get the chance to take the final step that will determine his fate. The honing process is long, time-consuming and stressful, but the potential rewards are matchless.

New York City is a place that is steeped in competition. On every conceivable level there is a drive to out-do the other guy and that collective push elevates some while depreciating others. The weeding-out process is impersonal and uncompromising but it’s also necessary. How else can a city maintain its collective greatness? Compromise invites mediocrity and if it’s pervasive enough it has the potential to crush excellence with its sheer volume. The city has experienced more than its share of troubles over the years but every time it has been tested New York City has demonstrated the needed grit to pull through and move ahead.

Over the past decade I’ve visited New York City on a number of occasions. While I’ve overcome the initial culture shock, I remain impressed with its size, with its history and with its impact on the world stage. I know that one has to be on his A-game at all times to meet the perceived demands – and I feel this just as a visitor. I can’t imagine what it would require to live here.

Because I wanted to avoid the evening rush, I chose the 6:08 flight out of Pittsburgh to LaGuardia. The departure was delayed 15 minutes because of air traffic issues in New York. As the flight attendant was giving the usual pre-flight safety instructions, the two men seated in front of me chatted animatedly and loudly. The vast majority of passengers don’t pay close attention to the instructions but this level of disregard was unusual. After she finished, she approached the pair and admonished them in a semi-humorous and passive-aggressive manner. Although the targets of her ire didn’t offer any push-back, they also didn’t appear chastened. Still, she got her point across.

Despite the delay, the plane touched down at its advertised time of 7:30. The lengthy taxi to the gate pushed back my deplaning for 15 minutes and I arrived at The Marcel on East 24th Street shortly before 9 p.m. My sixth-floor room was strikingly compact but it had everything I needed. The nearest electrical outlet was nearly 10 feet away from the desk but thankfully my cord was long enough to reach it. I stowed my luggage next to the closet, after which I called to let my loved ones know I had reached my destination safe and sound.

Once I settled in I ventured out in search of sustenance. I didn’t want to go too far lest I got lost, so after walking up and down a few blocks I decided not to get too adventurous. I got a sandwich at Subway and bought a couple of bags of small chips and a Coke Zero at an outlet located one block from the Marcel. I spent the remainder of the evening catching up on e-mails and surfing channels on the flat-screen before turning in at 1 a.m. Not the most glamorous evening, but it worked for me.

Friday, Nov. 22: Over the next six-and-a-half hours I drifted in and out of slumber. At times I heard the usual big-city mix of humming car engines, sudden sirens and yelling passers-by but at other junctures the ambience was surprisingly silent. Was “The City That Never Sleeps” sleeping? Not likely. But at least this neck of the asphalt was quieter than usual.

By the time I got out of bed the auditory razzmatazz had returned and I used much of the morning to catch up on my writing responsibilities. A cold drizzly rain had descended on the Big Apple and many pedestrians passed by with umbrellas at attention. My only pressing professional responsibility this day was to drop by the studio and make sure all was right electronically for tomorrow night’s show, a challenging proposition given the thousands of miles that separated studio from site.

Although I would have loved to make the trip to Macau, the production memo made clear the formidable challenges related to logistics and body-clock management. On top of the massively long flights, one had to remain on East Coast time in the U.S. in order to fulfill the necessary duties. That meant reporting to work in the wee hours of the morning local time and sleeping during the day, which for me would have only heightened the strangeness of the experience. Not only would I have been in an unfamiliar country and surrounded by a different language and culture, I would have been functioning at unusual times of day. I could only imagine what the good folks on the crew were going through.

I asked the front desk for directions to the studio, which I found with little trouble. The linking-up process with China took a couple of hours but once we established our connection it remained solid for the remainder of the event.

A couple of hours later I ventured out in search of vittles with the intent of stopping at the first place that caught my fancy. When I saw the store front for the Fine Food Deli on 411 2nd Avenue, I knew I found my destination. I bought an Italian sub, a can of Pringles and a 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero, not the most nutritious of meals but it certainly hit the spot.

After returning to the hotel to consume my bounty, I conducted some research for CompuBox and alternated between a showing of “Killing Kennedy” and C-Span’s broadcast of NBC’s original reporting on the John F. Kennedy assassination, which took place exactly 50 years ago. My visit to Dealey Plaza earlier this year made the coverage even more compelling from a personal standpoint. Still, I couldn’t watch it all because the Sandman was pulling hard on my eyelids. At 1 a.m., the lights went out.

Saturday, Nov. 23: The new day began for me six-and-a-half hours later and I decided to snooze for an extra 30 minutes before finally climbing out of bed and getting ready for the big day to come. The clouds that had enveloped the Big Apple had given way to sunny skies but unfortunately the mercury had dipped to 39 degrees. Thanks to the National Weather Service I had packed a sweater and a windbreaker that greatly eased all my open-air walks.

Aris asked me to meet him in the lobby at 1:00 p.m. for lunch, after which he guided me to our destination – Jack Demsey’s Pub (and yes, the business’s misspelling of Dempsey’s surname was intentional, probably for legal reasons). No, it wasn’t the famed Jack Dempsey’s Broadway Restaurant that closed in 1974 but rather an establishment that had an Irish pub’s ambiance. Sure, several autographed photos of boxing figures adorned the walls and a sign outside the restaurant let potential patrons know it was going to show the Pacquiao-Rios telecast, but I didn’t perceive it as a “boxing place” as I would Jimmy’s Corner, which I visited last December. An English Premier soccer game was airing on the multiple TV screens as Aris and I ordered burgers, fries and beverages and, as usual, much of our conversation was centered around boxing and its rich history.

A multi-generational group of six settled into the long table to our left and I overheard the grandfather ask a youngster who couldn’t have been more than eight years old if he knew who Jack Dempsey was. The child didn’t and the grandfather said he was a fantastic fighter from the past. I was greatly tempted to jump in and educate the tyke on who he was and what he meant to the sporting world during the Roaring ‘20s and beyond, but by then our meals had arrived.

Because Aris had to meet another friend at Times Square before reporting to the studio, we ended up going our separate ways – but not before he pointed me in the correct direction and gave me instructions on how to get back on somewhat more familiar territory. His directions were impeccable and within 20 minutes I was back at The Marcel. Since it was less than 24 hours before my flight home, I decided to go up to the business center to print out my boarding passes. A plus: I was able to change my location from 13C, an aisle seat in the very last row, to 2C, a preferred access seat, at no extra charge before printing out my boarding pass.

I arrived at HBO’s studios 15 minutes before my 4:30 p.m. call time – I’ve always been an early bird at heart – and so did Joe Gonzalez, who was to serve as HBO line producer and our verbal link to the production truck in China. After we arrived in the studio, we found that the connections we established the previous day remained rock-solid.  The scheduled rehearsal fight ended up going well.

The studio was graced with two large high-definition flat screens whose images completely filled my field of vision. As Aris and I watched junior middleweight Kuok Kun Ng earn a lopsided four-round decision over You-Jie Zeng, I found that this set-up made tracking punches an easy and enjoyable experience. By the time the fight ended all parties created an informational flow formula that would prove effective for the rest of the evening – an evening that would extend long into the night in New York and into the early afternoon hours half-a-world away.

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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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