Thursday, Nov. 28: For most Americans, this day – the fourth Thursday in November – is this year’s designated date for Thanksgiving. For me – as well as for thousands across the nation – the fact that it falls on Nov. 28 is a bonus because it’s also my birthday.
I could say I’m marking my 11th consecutive 39th birthday but Father Time, Mother Nature and my journalist’s instinct for accuracy demands I admit to turning 49. That it coincides with Thanksgiving – a phenomenon that occurs every five to six years – only amplifies the gratitude I feel for my circumstances: I remain in excellent health, I have terrific family and friends, I’m blessed with frequent opportunities to travel the globe and I have jobs that dovetail perfectly with my love of boxing and its history as well as my aptitude for statistics.
Mid-life crisis? Please. I’m in mid-life heaven.
For the third consecutive week of what will be a five-week Stretch Drive, I will be leaving the comforts of the Home Office to work the CompuBox keys. This week’s destination is Quebec City, an interesting coincidence because my only other trip there took place exactly four birthdays ago.
On that day, I was at ringside at the Pepsi Coliseum when then-IBF super middleweight titlist Lucien Bute scored a sensational fourth round knockout of Librado Andrade in their second of two fights and Joan Guzman eked out a highly controversial draw with star-crossed South African Ali Funeka despite being out-landed 248-163 overall. The post-fight outrage prompted a rematch four months later, and once again Guzman defied the numbers (199-139 overall, 63-46 jabs, 136-93 power) to gain a split decision win.
This year’s trip also will feature a major title doubleheader as Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev will defend their pieces of the light heavyweight championship against Tony Bellew and Ismayl Sillakh respectively. The card’s hoped-for objective is obvious: A title unification contest between a “Superman” and a Russian “Krusher” that promises to breathe fresh life into a division that has historically starved for it.
Not since the days when Prince Charles Williams, Michael Moorer, Virgil Hill and Dennis Andries held the belts two decades ago has the 175-pound class created such buzz. Back then, fans and media alike salivated over the potential classics their round-robin would have produced, but alas, no one ended up fighting anyone. Williams lost the title to Henry Maske, Moorer out-grew the division, Hill lost his belt to Thomas Hearns while Andries lost, regained and lost his bauble to Jeff Harding in one of history’s most underrated trilogies. If Stevenson and Kovalev emerge victorious in two days’ time, a meeting sometime in 2014 will produce guaranteed dynamite (or Kryptonite if Kovlev prevails).
But before getting to witness Saturday’s theatrics, I needed to get through Thursday.
Following an extraordinarily delicious home-cooked Thanksgiving meal, I headed out to Pittsburgh International Airport at 1:39 p.m. – nine minutes later than I wanted. Details, details and more details kept popping up as the final minutes closed in, but the extremely light traffic allowed me to arrive at the airport in record time – a little more than two hours.
That wasn’t the only surreal development. First, I found a parking space even choicer than the one I snagged two weeks earlier when traveling to Verona: Fourth spot from the 11A sign in the extended lot (the one nearest to the terminal entrance). The walk from car to entrance was a mere 120 steps. Birthday karma? I don’t know about that, but I’ll take it.
Once inside the airport an unprecedented sight greeted me: There were no passengers waiting in line at the security checkpoint. The only people in the area were a dozen TSA agents seated at their stations waiting for someone – anyone – to approach them.
That still was the case even after going to the Air Canada counter to get my boarding pass, something I was forced to do because passengers flying out of Pittsburgh can’t check in online. Given the usual airport hustle, the serenity was beyond bizarre.
“Never in all my life did I ever think I’d see this at a major international airport,” I said to an agent as I gave him my boarding pass. “This is just too weird.”
“I’ve heard that a lot today,” he replied. Of course, the holiday had everything to do with what was going on, but I thought I’d see at least a few other travelers along the way.
As the sole passenger in the area I felt the eyes bearing down on me as I went through the usual disassembling process.
Although dozens of passengers streamed out of the tram once the doors opened, I was the sole incoming person to board. The usually overflowing crowds at the McDonald’s outlet were completely absent; I walked up to the counter, placed an order and had my food in hand in approximately the same amount of time that Marvelous Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns fought their epic first round 28 years earlier.
I scanned the area for someplace where another human being was seated. It took a few moments but I found one. My dining companion was headed south to look at some prospective real estate and when I told him where I was going he shook his head in sympathy. We couldn’t have asked for more divergent weather scenarios, for while Florida was basking in sun-bathed 70s, Quebec City’s chill was so profound that HBO sent out a memo cautioning us about the expected zero-degree temperatures and the need to dress accordingly.
As I waited at the gate for my first flight from Pittsburgh to Toronto – one of only five flights remaining on the flight monitor and the final plane slated to leave “The Steel City” – two members of HBO’s audio crew found seats across from me. One of them had just returned from the Manny Pacquiao-Brandon Rios fight in Macau, China and he entertained us with several stories about his experiences.
I silently groaned when I saw our plane was a propeller-driven 40-seater because most of my experiences aboard such aircraft had been bad ones in terms of turbulence. However, my birthday luck kicked in again as the flight was stunningly serene.
However, that good fortune ran out in Toronto, whose airport is enormous. Following a walk estimated at a half-mile, I nearly was denied entry into Canada because I didn’t have a work permit. Thanks to HBO I was armed with a letter from the fight card’s promoter explaining why I was in Canada, a letter that usually garnered instant and trouble-free entry. This time I wasn’t so lucky and the skepticism shown by the customs agent started to concern me.
After reading the letter, the agent said “based on what you told me, you won’t need a permit this time. But I can’t guarantee that circumstances won’t change the next time.” When I asked the HBO audio guys about a half-hour later if they experienced similar queries, they said no. However, one of them mentioned that certain employees would require one but not someone with our respective positions.
The troubles continued when I discovered I had to unpack my belongings for the second security screening of the day. I noticed none of the other passengers removed their shoes before going through the metal detector, so I assumed that Canada was a keep-your-shoes-on country.
When I passed under the threshold the machine emitted a loud “Beep!” In my haste to unpack I had forgotten to remove my belt, which I usually keep in my clothes bag when going through security. I handed my belt to the security guard and proceeded to walk underneath the detector to begin the process again.
Before I could even assume my place on the other side the machine went off again: “Beep!”
“Did you empty your pockets?” the guard asked.
I patted myself down for the third and fourth times and assured him I was clean.
“It must be the shoes,” he surmised, sounding a lot like Spike Lee’s character Mars Blackmon from the movie “She’s Gotta Have It” and the classic Nike ads with Michael Jordan. “Take them off and put them on the conveyor belt.”
That did the trick. No beeps. With that, I was allowed to officially enter Canada.
The Toronto-to-Quebec City leg proceeded without a hitch, though the winds shook the plane a bit during our descent. Once I deplaned the profound drop in temperature was driven home, for the single-digit temperatures caused my breath to emit a thick, puffy vapor. Before boarding in Pittsburgh, where it was nearly 30 degrees warmer, the audio guys and I agreed we’d share a cab to the hotel. One of them wisely had the hotel’s address on his phone and showed it to the Francophone driver, who took us to our destination in 10 minutes’ time.
My room was considerably larger and more spacious than last week’s lodging and the shower facility – A Jet Set MAAX – was particularly striking. Encased in glass from floor to ceiling, it looked like the pneumatic pod the Jetsons used in their apartment building to come and go. It didn’t lack for options: Beside the typical overhead shower, it had a hand-held shower nozzle, 12 back jets that one can use while seated as well as six body jets, three on each side. The device was controlled by three handles that were lined up vertically. Handle A directed the overhead shower nozzle and the jets, Handle B activated the hand-held shower and Handle C dictated the water temperature. Operating instructions in French and English were posted on the wall as well as inside the stall and their complexity required a few minutes to absorb.
No restaurants were open because of the late hour but 24-hour room service was available. I opted to go simple: A bottle of Diet Pepsi from the vending machine and a small can of Pringles from the mini-bar. Around 2:45 a.m. I turned out the lights on a long, enjoyable and adventurous birthday.
Friday, Nov. 29: The extremely firm mattress adorning my queen-size bed did the trick, for once I slipped into slumber I was out for the duration. I stirred awake at 8 a.m. but chose to doze until 9. The extra rest helped me navigate the Jetson-esque shower with relative ease and after finishing the usual morning routines I spent time surfing the web and getting some more writing done.
As I was pondering how to craft my next paragraph I heard a peck on the door. The cleaning lady asked me a question in French that left me baffled, for while I speak passable Spanish my knowledge of French was limited to the numbers one through 10 and a few phrases. She clearly didn’t speak a word of English, and, paralyzed by our communication gap, we stared at each other for a few uncomfortable seconds.
Assuming she was seeking permission to clean the room while in my presence, I broke the tension by smiling, stepping aside and making a sweeping gesture with my right arm that signaled my consent to enter.
Knowing the Quebecois – and French speakers in general, especially in France – appreciate any effort to communicate in their native tongue, I hatched an idea. I use the Bing translator to communicate on Facebook with my Spanish-speaking friend, Argentine broadcaster Silvana Carsetti, and I remembered it had an English-to-French option. I typed out a message apologizing for my inability to speak her language and thanking her for cleaning the room so well. After she emptied my trash cans, I caught her attention and pointed to the screen. I didn’t dare read the words lest I butcher the pronunciation. It took her a few moments to digest but once she did she smiled and thanked me.
I wish I had it with me during my next encounter.
By the time I got to a good stopping point with the writing it was lunchtime. I decided to venture out into the 18-degree chill, remembering from the taxi ride that several outlets were within walking distance. A thin sheet of ice coated the sidewalk and a recent snowfall reached my lower shin. Glints of sunlight danced off individual cubes and a more than noticeable breeze caused my eyes to water. I blinked through the tears enough to spot a building with the tell-tale KFC script but whose letters read PFK. A Subway outlet was located across the street and while I considered going there I was in the mood for a bigger and more complete meal. Therefore, I decided to walk into the PFK and take my chances.
Upon entry I noticed every sign was printed in French, which initially intimidated me. I was thankful several other patrons were in front of me because it gave me time to scan the wall menu and piece together what I wanted.
In situations such as these, I sympathize with those who come to America not knowing but a few words of English. I felt like a second-class citizen and I was mightily tempted to walk out and return to the hotel where there were at least a few Anglophones. But the adventurer in me eventually won out and once I reached the head of the line I rolled the dice and hoped for good fortune.
“Excusez-moi, parlez vous Anglais?” I asked softly so as to not advertise my linguistic ignorance or any potential pronunciation errors.
“No,” she replied, shaking her head.
Snake eyes. OK, it was now or never, and I ended up choosing “now.” I pressed on.
I read the words that accompanied the chicken dinner – “repas de poulet” – and held up two fingers to indicate the number of pieces I wanted. I also requested “frites,” which I suspected meant fries. I had already taken a 20-ounce bottle of Diet Pepsi out of the refrigerator and she asked me something that sounded to me like “did you want this or the fountain drink?” I pointed to my soda, which got the message across.
When she uttered her next sentence, I recognized the word “ici” (“here”) and took it to mean whether I wanted to have my meal here or to go.
“Ici,” I replied.
She rang up the price – $9.82 – and gave me change for the $10 bill I handed her. Now all I had to do was wait for the food to be prepared and presented.
Shortly before my food arrived, the person at the counter gave me the choice of two sides. One was a green substance I couldn’t ascertain (guacamole? Avocado?) and the other, which I ended up picking, was a small macaroni salad.
I took a seat in the far corner of the restaurant with my back to the window so I could observe the clock on the other side of the room as well as the other patrons to confirm whether the cup of gravy that was presented to me was indeed the dipping sauce for fries I assumed it was. I was proven correct and from there I ate with confidence.
I know I couldn’t have pulled this off had I been in China last week for Pacquiao-Rios. I had at least a passing familiarity with French thanks to the boxing broadcasts I’ve watched over the years as well as my childhood fascination with other languages. But I know nothing of Mandarin Chinese, which I’m told is the most difficult language to learn given the extraordinary tonal dimensions involved. I would have been utterly lost.
Once I finished I trudged through the snow, ice and wind toward the hotel. The tear ducts opened up again and I almost fell on a slippery patch as I made my way down the hotel’s inclined driveway. But I made it back in one piece.
By now dozens of boxing people had gathered in the lobby as they readied to go to the weigh-in, which I assumed would take place at the Pepsi Coliseum. I spotted trainer/manager Russ Anber and exchanged brief hellos before returning to my room. Had I known the weigh-in was to take place at the hotel I would have attended, but I saw nothing that indicated the event’s whereabouts or its timing.
I was checking out posts on Facebook when punch-counting partner Aris Pina messaged that he was about to board his flight to Quebec City. We exchanged stories, then agreed to go to the arena to do the usual pre-fight set-up and seek evening sustenance thereafter.
As Aris and I waited for our ride we noticed the plethora of boxing figures congregated in the lobby and at the adjacent bar. Tony Bellew and his team sat on sofas to my right, laughing and joking at every opportunity. A few minutes later Adonis Stevenson walked by us with an intense, stone-faced stare, acknowledging no one and apparently lost in his thoughts.
Considering what happened at the weigh-in several hours earlier, it was a minor miracle no more hostilities broke out. Moments after both men made weight they were asked to engage in the customary stare-down. Instead they rammed their foreheads into one another and ignited a melee that involved pushing, shoving and ugly verbal abuse from Bellew that reportedly referenced Stevenson’s criminal past.
Such displays are frequent in boxing and while it’s designed to ratchet up interest among casual fans it doesn’t carry nearly the same impact as before. With violent films, video games and shock-value TV shows being the norm, a little pushing and shoving won’t move the needle that much. Still, these displays persist.
As for the fighters and their camps, the emotions seemed genuine. As I pondered the situation, I felt Stevenson’s stoicism might translate into either properly channeled carnage or wildly out-of-control emotionalism. Bellew’s actions appeared more calculated to me. I felt that for him to win, Bellew had to create a toxic emotional cocktail within Stevenson – the pressure associated with defending his title before his hometown fans, the need to impress a potential future rival in Kovalev and the emotional unrest Bellew’s behavior created. Bellew has always talked a good game and if he ever was to back it up this was the perfect time. Once I looked at the video of the weigh-in on YouTube, it appeared Stevenson was the instigator and Bellew was simply reacting in kind.
The pre-fight set-up procedures were finished within minutes – I call it “pitching a Carnicelli” in honor of Joe Carnicelli’s extremely good luck in this regard – and after eating some pizza in the green room, and consuming some out-of-this-world maple syrup cookies in the production truck, Aris and I caught a van back to the hotel and went our separate ways. A long work day at the Pepsi Coliseum awaited us and I planned to get as much rest as possible.
Saturday, Nov. 30: If I could take this mattress home with me I would. Eight uninterrupted hours of slumber makes for a powerfully persuasive case but I dismissed the idea because (1) that would constitute stealing, (2) Even if I managed to get it out of the hotel I couldn’t fit it inside the taxi or the security area’s conveyor belt and (3) I wouldn’t know how to explain it to customs. Given my problems getting into the country I didn’t want to make waves getting out.
One of my tasks for HBO is to collect biographical information of trainers associated with the main event fighters. Since we all were staying at the same hotel I thought the task would be relatively easy. As I walked toward the hotel restaurant I didn’t see Bellew’s trainer Mick McAllister but I did spot promoter Eddie Hearn eating breakfast. “OK,” I thought. “If I introduce myself to him, he’ll help me find a way to talk with McAllister, if not give me the info I need then and there.”
I didn’t want to interrupt his meal, especially as a total stranger, so I decided to wait in the hallway for him to finish. While doing so, Ismayl Sillakh’s trainer Shadeed Saluki and his son Kamel passed by me and took their place in line outside the restaurant’s entry point. I introduced myself and stated my purpose, after which they graciously invited me to sit at their table.
My original intent was to stay just a few minutes but, as is always the case with me and other boxing people, a brief visit turned into a full-blown gab-fest with all sorts of historic names being dropped. It was a most enjoyable and enlightening conversation and I felt we parted as friends. Hearn had long departed by the time I left, so I wasn’t able to gather any first-hand information on McAllister.
As I made my way toward my hotel room I heard someone shouting my name. It was Aris, who was about to venture out for lunch. I asked if I could tag along and he said I could.
Our trip had another objective beyond lunch; we wanted to purchase boxes of the maple-syrup flavored cookies that blew us away the previous night in the production truck. After eating lunch at the PKF, we walked to a nearby grocery and Aris bought three boxes – one for me and two for him (it was his way of thanking me for buying lunch). Our bounty grew even more when Nadia, one of the local people working the show with HBO who overheard us raving about the cookies, presented us with four more boxes of a different brand she purchased as a gift – two for each of us. Bless her heart.
Because I pack lightly for every trip to avoid having to visit baggage claim, I was suddenly confronted with the problem of how I could take everything home with me. That issue would be dealt with later, for Aris and I had a show to do.
The temperature inside the Pepsi Coliseum was chilly to say the least. The ice that lay underneath the floorboards contributed to the conditions, which required even the go-go dancers (but not the ring card girls) to wear jackets and warming headgear. I ended up wearing my heavy jacket the entire evening, which helped keep the fingertips from freezing over.
After eating dinner, I tried to return to my ringside position only to be told that I needed a white wristband to access the area. Being that my wristband was blue, I was turned away. So I found Josh Wolman, who was in charge of credentials, and got white wristbands for Aris and me. I scanned the dining room for Aris but he was no longer there. The ramp I used to get to the dining room was now blocked off for a very good reason: The first set of fighters – middleweights Sebastien Bouchard and Mohamed Sidi Slimadi – was about to use it for their respective ring walks. I searched the halls for Aris but he wasn’t there either. So I shrugged my shoulders and hoped for the best.
I found another access point to the arena, showed the three security guards my white wristband, and gained entry. Bouchard and Slimadi had just begun round one of what would be a six-round points win for Bouchard and I proceeded cautiously so as to not obstruct anyone’s view. When I finally reached my work station, there sat Aris – without the white wristband.
“You’re going to need this to stay here,” I said as I handed Aris his new credential. “How did you get past the guards?”
“I didn’t at first,” he replied. “But I convinced them to let me through. I told him ‘hey, bro, that’s my stuff over there,’ and he said ‘OK’ and let me past him.”
As Rod Stewart once sang, “some guys have all the luck.” Then again, I was lucky – and thankful – to be at ringside to witness what promised to be an enjoyable, and potentially destructive, night at the fights.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.