Lee Groves

Stretch Drive: Travelin’ Man in Atlantic City – Part I

Thursday, Dec. 5: Four days after returning home from Quebec City, the Travelin’ Man is pounding the pavement again – or at least driving over it.

The final two legs of my five-week Stretch Drive to end 2013 will see me travel to Atlantic City, first to work the CompuBox keys on an HBO-televised tripleheader involving Guillermo Rigondeaux-Joseph Agbeko, James Kirkland-Glen Tapia and Matthew Macklin-Lamar Russ, then an NBC Sports Network card which pits Amir Mansour-Kelvin Price and Lionell Thompson-Ryan Coyne.

Every so often, CompuBox’s resources are given a mighty stretch and such is the case this weekend. On Friday, veterans Joe Carnicelli and Saul Avelar will be in Shelton, Washington to cover a ShoBox quadrupleheader pairing J’Leon Love-Lajuan Simon, Badou Jack-Rogelio Medina, Mickey Bey-Carlos Cardenas and Christopher Pearson-Acacio Ferreira. Meanwhile, while colleague Andy Kasprzak and I work the Atlantic City card, CompuBox president Bob Canobbio and his son Nic will do their magic at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, where they will count a Showtime Championship Boxing quadrupleheader.

That is a ton of boxing. Good thing we have six pairs of hands to count them all. I remember very well the days when the original two-man crew of Bob Canobbio and Logan Hobson was enough to handle a given week’s workload, so this situation further illustrates just how much CompuBox has grown over the years.

My workload these past four days was quite the challenge and to be honest I wasn’t able to finish everything on my to-do list. While I completed much of the pre-fight research I barely touched the fights I recorded on my hard-drive recorder and managed only to transfer the broadcasts I saved on my DVR. I figured that work will wait until next week, when I will have five days between trips instead of the three-and-a-half I had here. Although I hate to leave tasks undone, I am sure all will get done eventually, especially since after next week I’ll be home until mid-January.

Following the supreme chill of Quebec City where single-digit temperatures reigned, I pulled out of the driveway amid considerably warmer conditions. Although it rained steadily, the thermometer stood at a balmy 62 degrees – and it was still 8:30 a.m. Now that’s my kind of December weather!

Aside from a traffic jam less than 20 minutes outside Pittsburgh International Airport, the drive was otherwise serene. A damaged 18-wheeler was the culprit but as I rolled past the situation appeared under control and the wreckage looked limited.

The prime parking spots I snagged in previous weeks weren’t available, but I found an easy-to-find spot five stalls away from the 13D sign in the extended parking lot, which required about a five-minute walk from car to terminal. By the time I put the car into park, the rain had slowed to a drizzle so I avoided getting drenched.

Once inside the terminal I was pleasantly surprised to see only one other person in the “preferred access” line and just half a dozen passengers snaking through the general access queue. I completed the security screening in unhurried fashion, though as I neared an abandoned row of seats at my gate I saw two birds fly away. Guess they didn’t get the memo about flying south.

Today’s itinerary is roughly the same as it was when I last visited Atlantic City in October: Catch a direct flight to Philadelphia, stop at Hertz to pick up my rental car and drive to the hotel. Given my success negotiating around Philly last time, I entered today’s trip with none of the nervousness or trepidation I felt then.

Having said that, I also realized that “pride comes before a fall” and I didn’t feel like falling. Before I left the house I checked my GPS to make sure the hotel’s address was one I could enter. It wasn’t. So I called the hotel to see if an alternate address was available. She said there wasn’t. Finally, I asked the clerk to give me driving directions upon entering Atlantic City, which I wrote down and stuffed inside my laptop carrying case. I might have been a member of the Boy Scouts for one meeting (I was told our chapter broke up due to lack of interest), but I was there long enough to learn the credo “Be Prepared.”

The plane coming in from Philly arrived later than anticipated, which pushed back our departure by about the same amount. But since there were no connections to make, there weren’t any worries.

A few minutes before boarding I stopped across the hallway to a small McDonald’s outlet, thinking I had several minutes to spare. It was a calculated risk, but a risk nonetheless. That risk nearly came back to bite me hard, for less than two minutes after I placed my order the first group of passengers – of which I should have been one – were asked to board.

Oh boy.

I alerted the two-person staff that my flight had been called earlier than expected and they did their best to accommodate me. The medium Diet Coke was served immediately but the process was slowed because a new batch of fries had to be prepared. At one point the shift supervisor walked across the hall to see how much time remained before the doors would be closed.

While I occasionally looked over my shoulder to keep an eye on what was going on, I remained calm because given my well-documented travel troubles over the years I had a feeling everything was going to work out OK – which it did. I was among the last people to board, but in the end I boarded.

Talk about fast food, huh?

I brought a book to read – “Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle The Historic 2004 Season” by Stewart O’Nan and Stephen King (yes, that Stephen King) – but I spent the entire flight chatting with my seatmate Frank, a computer software company employee who had followed boxing during the Muhammad Ali era but who subsequently became a lapsed fan. Sadly, that’s an all-too-common phenomenon, for in this era of heavily segmented TV choices boxing failed to maintain the lofty place it used to occupy. The reasons why I think this is the case can be found in a story I wrote last year linking what happened to boxing versus what is happening now in the NFL, a scenario that is becoming more real with every passing week.

Frank and I also discussed his teen-age son’s aspirations to become a sports broadcaster. While the route to my present station was hardly typical – changing careers at age 42 – the principles I applied were standard: Initiative, drive, opportunism, perseverance and validating the faith of those who generously open doors for me.

Speaking of open doors, I was puzzled by the Prius that occupied the space written on my rental car agreement. I had never seen one, much less tried to drive one, but I was willing to try if this was what I was given. My initial efforts – even after scanning the operator’s manual – failed miserably because the last time I tried to operate a stick-shift was when I mowed the lawn as a teen-ager.

I didn’t want to risk driving an overly complicated vehicle, at least for me, so I returned to the counter and requested another model. At first the clerk didn’t believe me.

“Nah, that can’t be possible,” he said. “Are you sure you were at the right space?”

“Yes, I am.” I replied. What I was too polite to say was “I’ve made my living using numbers for the past seven years. I think I am well equipped to recognize the number ‘451’ when I see it and what I saw there was a Prius I can’t operate.”

Within a few minutes I was given a replacement vehicle, a gray Kia Soul with an automatic transmission. Excellent. Once inside I programmed my GPS for Arctic Avenue, my first turn-off street in Atlantic City.

Although the Magellan guided me perfectly, I was able to anticipate every twist and turn on the route – something I had never done when driving through Philadelphia. Once I reached the Walt Whitman Bridge, I was home free. When I paid the initial $3 toll on the Atlantic City Expressway, I recalled an exact-change 75-cent booth was stationed a few miles ahead, so I asked the toll taker to change an extra dollar bill for quarters so I’d be ready for it. The hard lessons learned from past troubles now were serving me well.

When I approached Atlantic City and looked down at my itinerary, I realized the hotel I sought was the same one I stayed at in October. Upon discovering this I shut off the GPS because my memory now was sufficient to finish the task.

I found the parking garage across the street with ease and as I walked toward the hotel I felt something I had never experienced during previous trips here – supreme confidence and competence. It isn’t every day that a past phobia is completely conquered. Could driving in New York City be next? I think not.

After settling into my ninth floor hotel room, I walked to a Subway outlet at a nearby plaza and ordered a foot-long Subway Club, chips and a Diet Coke to go. Once I returned to my room I spent the rest of the evening alternating between the Louisville-Cincinnati college football game and coverage of Nelson Mandela’s passing at age 95.

I witnessed the mixture of grief over his death and celebration of his life on the streets as heard the heartfelt tributes to the man who fueled the transformational rebirth of South Africa. Given Mandela’s many accomplishments, his formidable mental strength and his extraordinary grace in the aftermath of his imprisonment, I find it particularly gratifying that he was a fervent lover of boxing, both as a participant and as a fan.

It is interesting to note that Mandela was released from jail the day after James “Buster” Douglas produced the most shocking upset in sports history with his knockout of undisputed heavyweight champion Mike Tyson. One has to wonder if Mandela knew about the earth-shaking result as he was creating his own history by walking out of Victor Verster prison and taking his new place on the world stage. As the world mourns his passing, President Obama put it well when he said that Mandela now “belongs to the ages.”

Friday, Dec. 6: Arising at 8:30 a.m., I spent most of the morning writing, surfing the web and doing CompuBox research. I ended the session just a couple of tasks away from completing work for the year so I felt good about where I stood.

The skies remained overcast but the pea-soup fog that had descended late yesterday afternoon had lifted somewhat. The mercury stood at 51 degrees, so I felt comfortable venturing out in a sweatshirt with no windbreaker. I decided to eat lunch at the Cavo Crepe Café – a new spot for me – and ordered a turkey BLT Panini, waffle fries and a Diet Pepsi (my preferred soda along with a local brand called Bubba). The serving size was much larger than I thought it would be and though I managed to clean my plate I felt during the walk back to the hotel that my arteries were hardening with every succeeding step.

The next stop on the itinerary was the parking lot inside Boardwalk Hall, then a walk toward the Palladium Room inside Caesars where the weigh-in was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. – “scheduled” being the operative word.

In reality, the festivities started 40 minutes late. I never found out the reasons behind the delay but the group of people for whom I felt most sorry was the fighters. To make weight they usually dry out, deny themselves food, or both and their efforts are specifically timed to the weigh-in. When logistical issues cause a delay, they are forced to suffer even longer and knowing that only intensified my sympathy for them. During past weigh-ins I’ve seen spectators drink beverages or eat items even as they sat beside the fighters, which strikes me as terribly insensitive. Yet even then, the affected fighters maintained their discipline. I’ve always considered fighters to be special people, and that’s just one more example of why I feel this way.

I passed the time by chatting with Roger Mayweather – who, despite the legendary greatness of Kobe Bryant, should be the sports world’s one and only “Black Mamba” – as well as 1976 U.S. Olympian Charles Mooney (who was training middleweight Matt Korobov for this show) and Lamar Russ’ chief second Al Smith, who had trained Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Ray Mercer as amateurs during his nearly 40 years in the sport. I couldn’t think of a much better way to spend my time when said time was slowed to a near crawl.

Once the logjam finally loosened, the event proceeded with lightning speed. The weigh-ins for the three HBO-televised fights was completed in just eight minutes and none of the six fighters missed their contracted poundages. They also conducted themselves professionally; no mind games, no pushing or shoving and no attempts at intimidation. How refreshing.

As much as I wanted to stay for the weigh-ins involving the untelevised undercard fighters, I couldn’t do so because I had to return to Boardwalk Hall for my 4 p.m. call time. Unlike my walk from Boardwalk Hall to Caesars 90 minutes earlier, this trip was completely devoid of drenching, chilling rain.

While I had worked shows inside the big room, I had no idea where the smaller arena was located. When I asked an HBO technician how to get there he simply and logically replied “once you go up the escalator to your left, just follow the wires to ringside.” So, just as Dorothy followed the Yellow Brick Road in the “Wizard of Oz,” your friendly neighborhood punch-counter followed the spidery wires to my intended destination (talk about mixed metaphors).

Once a power source was made available, I was blessed with another Carnicelli in terms of receiving technical confirmation that all was well. I grabbed a can of Diet Coke from the area near the production truck and drove back to the hotel to tackle some more research associated with tomorrow night’s show. Although it was almost 5 p.m. the sun had long set – another depressing reminder of the approaching winter season.

After buying a mid-evening snack, I wrapped up the evening by watching the Showtime-televised quadruple-header. I briefly wondered, given the current tensions between the networks, if watching a show on Showtime while working a job for HBO constituted a breach of etiquette. I shrugged it off, for my love of boxing trumps just about anything else.

Saturday, Dec. 7: I again woke up at 8:30 a.m. and when I looked out the window I saw a far brighter day. The clouds remained but the sun finally broke through the gray wall by late morning and reached full brilliance by early afternoon.

After buying lunch at Subway and relaxing in the room for a few hours, I went to the business center to print out my boarding pass. To my delight I discovered I had been bumped up to first class. Better yet, I was seated in row two because there I could put one bag underneath my seat while putting the other on the overhead bin. For those who recall my last trip to Atlantic City (if you are one of them, bless you), I was placed in row one of first class and had some issues regarding storage because I was in row one and didn’t have a seat in front of me to stow my stuff.

Not long before leaving for Boardwalk Hall, I learned that Jacob Matlala – boxing’s shortest ever world champion at 4-feet-10½ inches and Nelson Mandela’s favorite fighter during his later years – had died as a result of various health issues. “Baby Jake” made his biggest mark on July 18, 1997 with a cut-induced ninth round TKO over Michael Carbajal on HBO’s airwaves, a surprising result to many but not to me. I had several videos of Matlala in my collection and I thought the styles – and Carbajal’s cut-prone brows – worked in the South African’s favor. Throwing more than 130 punches per round, the 35-year-old Matlala was on pace to establish a new CompuBox record for most punches thrown in a fight but Carbajal’s cuts proved too severe to justify further action.

It was the kind of victory that had propelled other fighters toward stardom in the U.S. and on HBO but sadly he never again appeared in either forum. But few who ever saw him fight will ever forget his tenacity, his toughness and his undeniable charisma.

My call time to the arena was 4:30 and at 4:10 my punch-counting partner Andy Kasprzak knocked on the door as expected. Everything lined up electronically at ringside and I spent the majority of the down time doing what I always do – talking boxing with ringsiders. My conversational partners included referee Steve Smoger, HBO analyst Max Kellerman, writers Keith Idec, Ken Hissner and Joe Santoloquito and, of course, Andy, a fellow video-phile. I also spoke with the Original Travelin’ Man Jack Obermayer, who told me inroads have been made in terms of having him report on a fight card in Alaska, the 50th and final state of his lifelong boxing odyssey.

Following the HBO crew meal at Roberto’s Restaurant inside Trump Plaza, Andy and I reassumed our ringside positions and readied ourselves for what would be a most enjoyable – and numbers friendly – night at the fights.

*

Photos / Alexander Joe-AFP (Mandela statue), Todd Warshaw-Getty Images (Matlala)

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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