Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Bethlehem – Part I

JamesvsRivas

 

Friday, March 14: So far, this year has followed a pleasing rhythm: road trip, a few weeks at home, road trip, a few weeks at home, rinse and repeat. Enough adventure to take a break from the home office routine and enough time away from the road to decompress while also whittling away at the never-ending “to-do” list.

This week’s journey brings a relative rarity for me: a new city. In my nine years of air travel, I have yet to work a show in Bethlehem, Pa., which, for the uninitiated, is located in the eastern part of the state and boasts the state’s seventh largest population behind Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, Reading and Scranton. A quick search of the Boxrec.com database reveals only two native-born boxers and both of them are active – 7-2 (5) heavyweight Eric Newell and 2-4 (2) super bantamweight Jesus Gonzales. For the record, my hometown of Friendly, West Virginia (population 130) isn’t even listed among the site’s search options (surprise, surprise). Maybe someday it will be but probably not.

If one wants to count Bethlehem-based boxers from other parts of the world, the most notable by far is welterweight Ronald Cruz, a native Puerto Rican and decade-long resident who became a local favorite by running off 17 straight wins, some of which were nationally televised. But then, he stumbled. Back-to-back defeats to Antwone Smith – a questionable verdict given Cruz outlanded Smith 253-186 overall and 207-126 in power shots while landing 50 percent of his power shots – and Ray Narh in more emphatic fashion set him back. Three straight knockouts over softer competition have set the table for an intriguing crossroads bout with fellow Puerto Rican – and fellow longtime Pennsylvania resident – Kermit Cintron. Their 10-rounder will be one of the fights on Saturday’s card topped by Tomasz Adamek-Vyacheslav Glazkov on NBC Sports Network, the card I’ll be working tomorrow.

But first things first: I need to get there. I suppose I could have driven – it would have been a six-and-a-half hour, one-way journey – but I figured a two-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh, flights to Philadelphia and Allentown and an eight-mile drive to the Sands Resort Casino in Bethlehem would be more convenient and less tiring. A lengthy layover in Philly – three-and-a-half hours as of now – would prevent me from witnessing the weigh-in but maybe I’d make up for that by running into some old friends later.

Before leaving the house, I received a minor scare. One of the new emails that found my inbox came from US Airways and it contained good and bad news. The good: I received a free first-class upgrade on Saturday’s Philadelphia-to-Pittsburgh leg. The bad: inside a gray-colored bar beneath the upgrade notice, the text read: “We found an issue…there’s a problem with one of the flights in your reservation. Please call (the following phone number).” Since the e-mail was sent at 3:48 a.m., the issue had to be a very recent one.

Of course, I thought the worst and one of my fears was confirmed when I heard the following: “Due to weather concerns, all agents are currently serving other customers. Please stay on the line and we will connect you with the next available agent.” I heard that bad weather was scheduled to strike this weekend and perhaps that was what the voice was addressing.

When the Muzak stopped, the phone tree kicked in. All I wanted to do was to connect to a person because my problem was so specific but the system’s barbs and branches sent me through verbal loops so uncompromising that I hung up and tried again. Like the old Herman’s Hermits song, Henry VIII, I Am, it was “second verse, same as the first.” After the third time through the tree, I let out an exasperated “Come on!” during the next set of instructions. That seemed to do the trick, for the moment after I said it, the tree clicked off and dialed up a real person.

After giving the agent my locator code, she surprised me by declaring: “I don’t see any problems with your flight and I don’t see where they even sent out the email that prompted your call.” It wasn’t for me to question my good fortune; I just thanked her for her time, hung up and finished packing.

I left the house at 8:20 a.m. under brightly sunny but typically cold conditions. A recent thaw uncovered dozens of cavernous potholes, any of which could have caused tire damage had I hit them flush. I managed to weave around most of them – some I couldn’t avoid because oncoming traffic prevented me from taking my preferred escape routes – and I arrived at the airport at the expected time.

Although the general access queue was bursting at the seams, I was pleasantly surprised that the “preferred access” line for Silver and above-status fliers like me was completely open. I also found a near-empty lane at the checkpoint to unpack all my gear with relatively little stress, though the slowness of the person ahead of me, in terms of repacking her items, caused the trays to stack up like the famous I Love Lucy conveyor belt scene.

As usual, regarding flights bound for Philly, delays pushed my scheduled departure time back 45 minutes. I also was given an unexpected item during the boarding process – a yellow tag for one of my bags.

For years, my two small bags merited no special attention because I can easily fit one in the overhead bin while sliding the other underneath my seat. No tags and most importantly, no visit to baggage claim. So when I was given the tag, I politely asked the agent if this was being done in error.

The response was hardly polite: “This is the way things are being done now. We just want to get the boarding process done as quickly as possible. Move on.” Hmph.

Instead of affixing the tag to my clothes bag, I hid it in my hand just to see if either the baggage people on the jetway or the flight attendants would say anything. They didn’t, so I didn’t. Nuisance solved.

As was the case a few weeks earlier, choppy air affected the ascent and descent while the middle portion was rock solid and smooth. The plane pulled into the “F” terminal in Philly, which made me silently groan. The reason: based on my many visits there, that usually meant having to board a bus to get to my connecting gate without having to undergo a second security screening. It’s the lesser of two evils but it still takes time. But when I scanned the flight monitor, I learned my Allentown flight would leave from another “F” terminal gate located just a few hundred yards away.

The typical congestion issues lengthened my layover by 45 minutes, so I decided to grab a leisurely late-afternoon meal at the food court while reading John Feinstein’s Hard Courts, his lengthy and enjoyable account about the professional tennis tour during the early 1990s. After returning to the gate, I checked my email and found a note that Butch Flansburg of the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame had called my home number and wanted to speak with me. Not long after our conversation ended, the gate agent began the boarding process. I wondered if this agent would give me a yellow tag like the one in Pittsburgh had. She didn’t. So much for “This is how we do things now,” huh?

Just before take-off, I noticed I had missed a call by former RING editor and current Sirius XM radio host Randy Gordon. His message in part was a short-notice invitation to be on his weekly radio show, a program on which I appeared last week. Normally, I would have jumped at the chance but since I can’t use my cell phone during flight, I was forced me to text my regrets. But shortly after doing so, the flight attendant made an astonishing announcement: the estimated flight time would be just 17 minutes – by far the shortest flight in terms of time I’ve ever been on. If that held true, I planned to text Randy again to see if he still needed me.

Though the flight left later than expected – congestion issues again – the wheels-up-to-wheels-down time was indeed 17 minutes. After disembarking, I found a quiet spot inside the terminal and texted Randy that I was available if he still needed me. Because he was still on air, he probably didn’t see my note, so after waiting in the terminal 20 minutes for a potential call-back, I moved on to the next task: Securing my rental car and driving to the Sands Resorts Casino.

My Magellan GPS quickly “found” me and I entered the address recommended on the production memo. When my device declared, “You have arrived,” I looked around and knew I had not yet arrived. The same thing happened a few weeks earlier in Cleveland, so I braced for the possibility of stopping somewhere and asking for directions. But just after driving through the next traffic light, I glanced to my left and saw a lighted roadside sign bearing the familiar Sands logo. One left turn later, I was on the property.

Like everything else about the Sands, the self-parking garage was enormous and it took me quite some time to find an empty space. I later found out the reason: talk show host Chelsea Handler was performing at the casino’s event center and apparently those in charge of getting the word out had succeeded wildly. I finally found one empty space on the fifth level and after writing down its location on my Pittsburgh airport parking stub, I set out to find the hotel lobby.

That proved to be an adventure too and I later found out I wasn’t the only one who had issues. But after consulting a hotel employee, I eventually righted myself and checked in. The clerk who had my credit card marveled at my hometown’s “Friendly” moniker and asked the usual question: “Is everyone in Friendly friendly?” And I gave my usual answer: “Most of us are but I’m one of the rebels.” Most of the time that line gets a laugh because of my obviously friendly disposition but here, I got a quizzical look. She chuckled only after I told her I was just kidding.

After unpacking, I decided to explore my surroundings. As mentioned earlier, the Sands property is huge and I discovered it also was multi-faceted. In addition to the casino, it boasts a multi-story mall that includes restaurants, several of which bear the name of celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse (who, earlier in the day, was on Good Morning America, cooking crust-less quiche with spinach gruyere with the Swedish Chef – my favorite Muppet this side of Animal and Cookie Monster). As I wended my way through the various areas, I saw the massive queue for Handler’s show. The line included what seemed to be hundreds, if not thousands, and most of them clutched copies of her new book, Uganda Be Kidding Me – a sort of “Travelin’ Lady” story — in hopes of getting it signed.

While walking through the casino area, I looked up at one of the many TV screens and saw that North Carolina State was about to hand Syracuse a loss in the ACC tournament. Shortly after I swung by the food court, I spotted a familiar face from the NBC lighting crew standing in line at the Mo Better Burger outlet and we soon were joined by one of his female colleagues who, to me, bore a strong facial resemblance to tennis legend Monica Seles. I had planned to take my bounty back to the room but those plans changed when they invited me to eat with them, a request I gladly accepted. We soon were joined by my punch-counting partner, Aris Pina, who happened to be seated at an adjacent table and had arrived earlier that day following an hour-long bus ride from New York City.

Following an hour of fun conversation, I returned to my room, did some web and channel surfing, after which I retired for the evening.

Saturday, March 15: Another busy day for CompuBox: Not only are Aris and I working in Bethlehem, President Bob Canobbio and Joe Carnicelli are in Puerto Rico for the Showtime/Showtime Extreme card topped by Danny Garcia-Mauricio Herrera. Business – and life – is good.

I spent most of the morning catching up on my writing responsibilities, after which I took the elevator down to the lobby to print out my boarding passes. Because I logged in just after the check-in window began, I snagged a “preferred access” seat on my Allentown-to-Philadelphia leg to go along with the first-class upgrade I had already been given for the Philly-to-Pittsburgh flight.  At least for a few seconds, I felt I “beat the system” but in reality, the system allowed me to do that in the first place.

The production memo didn’t specify a call time for the CompuBox crew, so I decided to walk down to the event center a little after noon. Plenty of time. Although the work station was set up directly behind the NBC Sports Network announcers’ table, there still weren’t any chairs or a place to plug in. I spent the extra time talking to members of the crew who weren’t busy at the moment, both at ringside and inside the production truck. I grabbed credentials for me and Aris – a blue paper wristband with white polka dots – and waited for the 2 p.m. crew meal to begin. Aris’ arrival was well-timed – just a few minutes before the food break began.

But before I left, I (and eventually, Aris) had engaged in a lengthy conversation with an employee of Peltz Boxing as well as veteran trainer Don Turner. One of the main topics was the merits of legendary middleweight Carlos Monzon, whom Don and I agree was good enough to beat anyone – even Sugar Ray Robinson.

“He was mean…mean!” Turner kept saying as we watched the final round of Monzon’s title-winning effort against Nino Benvenuti, which was deemed THE RING’s “1970 Fight of the Year,” on the Peltz employee’s phone. “Look at it: every time Benvenuti did anything, Monzon always came back with something hard.” The right hand that ended the fight almost beheaded Benvenuti and it was a near miracle that he managed to stumble to his feet just before the fight was rightfully waved off.

Not only did Monzon go unbeaten for the final 81 fights of his career, he managed to change his style from right-hand bomber to effective volume puncher after being shot in the right shoulder. “King Carlos” left the sport in a most enviable way – on top, still near the peak of his form and with the universal respect of the boxing community. And, most of all, he never came back. Too bad the rest of his life didn’t follow a similar course, for he ended up going to jail and dying at age 52 following an auto accident while on prison furlough. I remember Mike Tyson saying that he would pick Monzon to beat Robinson in a head-to-head match and I can’t say I would disagree with him, only because Robinson was his very best at welterweight and not middleweight, where he had a far spottier record.

At the crew meal, I decided to get three sliders – two turkey burgers and one conventional patty – a small serving of rigatoni, a cookie, a brownie and a small bottle of Diet Coke, all of which hit the spot. Believe it or not, this was the first time I ever had sliders – I had always consumed full-size burgers and occasionally super-sized ones – and if given the chance, I’ll have them again.

I returned to ringside to have some issues resolved, the last of which was completed just 15 minutes before the first fight of the evening began. Because we were taping several fights for the Future Stars series along with the live showings of Isaac Chilemba-Denis Grachev and Vyacheslav Glazkov-Tomasz Adamek, Aris and I were about to begin a potentially lengthy evening.

A lot of boxing people can learn to count punches but the asset that usually separates the contenders from the pretenders is the ability to maintain intense focus for long periods of time. Shows like this one require punch-counters – especially the “lead dog,” the operator suggesting stats to the truck and passes notes to the talent – to stay on point for nearly five hours. The short breaks between bouts offer the only opportunity to gear down a bit and if one isn’t used to the mental grind, it can get quite tiring. It’s not a problem for me, however, because even in my daily life, I always have the feeling of being “locked in” on whatever task I’m doing. Therefore, the rigors of punch-counting are merely an extension of what I do day-to-day and they fall in line with my detail-oriented temperament.

Although the first fight on the bout sheet – a scheduled four-rounder between welterweights Nathaniel Rivas and Terrell James – was not going to be taped or televised, Aris and I decided to count it anyway to get in a nice warm-up. Little did I know how much of a warm-up we got. To find out what happened, read part two.

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Photo / Rich Graessle-MAIN EVENTS

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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