Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Monroeville-Part I

sammy-vasquez-wins-Stephanie Trapp-Showtime

 

RingTV’s resident historian and “Travelin’ Man” Lee Groves resumed his journeys this past weekend when he trekked to Monroeville, Pa. to count a ShoBox-televised tripleheader. In this first of two installments, Groves hailed this trip’s simplicity, recounted what happened when he met one of the fighters on the televised portion of the card and discussed the realities of televised boxing and how Floyd Mayweather Jr. proved himself to be the “exceptional exception.”

Friday, April 18: Regular readers of the “Travelin’ Man Chronicles” know that complicated travel and the troubles that result from it have been a staple of the series. Faulty navigation of unfamiliar roads, connection complications at airports and even a dead battery in my rental car in Salamanca, N.Y. pockmarked my nearly decade-long odyssey. A recent trip to Atlantic City added “finding lost car in hotel parking garage” to my list of adventures.

So when I learned a few weeks ago that tonight’s ShoBox tripleheader was emanating from Monroeville, Pa., I knew none of those issues would be in play because the town is located just 15 miles east of Pittsburgh, the site of my “home” airport. How quaint: no security screenings, no flight delays, no missed connections, no turbulence and no crying infants in close proximity. Unlike most trips, I could comfortably arrive the day of the show, which gave me more time to get work done at home while also saving Showtime the expense of an extra night’s stay. All I needed to do was get in my car, drive for three hours, check into the hotel, work the card at the arena next door and drive home the next morning.

Ah, the joys of simplicity.

With a 1:30 p.m. call time at the arena, I left the house at 9 a.m. to give myself a healthy cushion just in case I ran into road construction or rush hour traffic. Of course, I encountered both but nothing that hindered my progress too much. The sunny skies and temperatures that promised to hit the mid-60s made the experience even more pleasant.

Better yet, 90 percent of the route to Monroeville was the same that I take when driving to the airport. But to navigate that final 10 percent, I used my nearly decade-old Magellan along with the printed directions from airport to hotel included in Showtime’s production memo. Some of the exit numbers had changed but thankfully, the path from point A to point B had not.

I arrived at the Doubletree Hotel next to the Monroeville Mall shortly before noon and after checking in, I was given a treasure: the Doubletree Cookie. For those who are not familiar with the custom, every guest is given a large, warm cookie wrapped inside a small paper bag upon arrival. I don’t know about you but after a long, hard travel day (or even a shorter one), that morsel really hits the spot.

Just as I turned toward the elevator to seek out my fifth-floor room, I was greeted by a friendly face: Showtime analyst Steve Farhood, who had just been inducted into the New York Boxing Hall of Fame. As we talked about this, that and the other thing, an admirer walked up to Steve and presented him with a gift. It turned out that the man was Joe Botti and the gift was his book, “Joe Jennette (sic), Boxing’s Ironman: A Story of Race, Love and the 20th Century’s Longest Finish Fight.” After Steve thanked him, we wrapped up our conversation and went our separate ways. After all, I had an arena to find.

I knew the venue was nearby but I couldn’t put my finger on the exact location. As I scanned the skyline for clues, I spotted three men wearing boxing-themed clothing who looked like they could lead me to where I wanted to go.

“Are you guys headed to the arena?” I asked.

“Yes we are,” one of them replied.

“Are you involved with the show tonight?” I queried.

They were. The youngest of the trio by far was 11-0 welterweight Juan Rodriguez Jr., who was to fight 13-0 hometown hero Sammy Vasquez in the opening televised bout while the other two men were his seconds. I noted that Rodriguez, who lives in Union City, N.J., was taking a calculated risk by fighting Vasquez, a native of Monessen, Pa., in his home area, so I asked the 27-year-old about the difficulties of fighting away from home.

He said the right things and appeared to mean them. He liked the challenge of going into another fighter’s hometown and quieting his fans. Along with the “W,” their silence and disappointment would be his reward. When asked about his style (I hadn’t seen any film of him), Rodriguez answered as most fighters do.

“I’m a boxer-puncher,” he said. “I can adapt my style to whatever situation I see in the ring.” Normally, Rodriguez’s southpaw stance would give him an edge but against Vasquez, also a lefty, that advantage was neutralized. Our walk-and-talk led us to the arena’s giant interior and at that point, we separated, they to their cavernous dressing room and me to ringside for the usual pre-fight routines.

While I waited for the work station and power supply to be set up and other tasks to be completed, I kept busy by seeking out conversations wherever I could find them. I wandered around the arena and talked with, at various times, executive producer Gordon Hall, production manager Joie Silva, production coordinator Nikki Ferry, technical manager Paul Tarter and lead utility man Kevin White. Ferry told me about Vasquez’s plan to include a Humvee in his ring walk, a nod to his military service that included two combat tours in Iraq.

It soon became clear that Vasquez, a two-time All-Army and armed forces champion, was the star of this show, at least among the fighters involved in the card. According to a story published on the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s web site, Monessen’s City Council declared April 18 as “Sammy Vasquez Jr. Day,” capping a whirlwind week for the fighter that included numerous TV and radio interviews, promotional appearances and a black-tie benefit dinner in Pittsburgh for the Wounded Warriors Project. Following the Thursday weigh-in, Vasquez accompanied promoter Mike Tyson as the former undisputed heavyweight champion tossed out the ceremonial first pitch at PNC Park before the Pirates-Brewers game.

The love for Vasquez continued as the fans began to file into the Monroeville Convention Center. Many of them wore bright red t-shirts bearing Vasquez’s name and they weren’t afraid to show their affection at every opportunity. Following the untelevised portion of the undercard, the deejay led what could best be described as a “flash dance mob” inside the tiny 16-foot-square ring. More than three dozen people – the deejay, the ring card girls, a woman wearing a crown and a “Mrs. Pennsylvania” sash and tons of youngsters wearing “Team Vasquez” shirts – poured into the squared circle and jumped around for several minutes as music (and the deejays demands to “make some noise”) blared through the loudspeakers. White, who was in charge of all things ringside, could only frown and shake his head while fellow punch-counter Aris Pina, who is as plugged in to pop culture as anyone I know, expressed his own disapproval.

The consequences of this exercise could have been disastrous. What if the ring had collapsed under the collective weight? What if one of the kids – or more – had suffered an injury? Tyson, who would have borne much of the potential financial and legal damage, didn’t appear to mind. “Iron Mike” was contentedly seated with his family as well as Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris, who won four Super Bowl titles with the Steelers during the iconic “Steel Curtain” era and whose likeness graces the interior of Pittsburgh International Airport. The champ looked to be in good spirits and why not? The place was packed and the dance mob ended without incident.

A few notes about the undercard:

*The best nickname of the night clearly belonged to Newark, N.J. middleweight Malik “Freaky Deaky” Jackson, who fought local attraction Andreas Kamouyerou to a four-round draw. As older fans may know, “Freaky Deaky” was the moniker comedian Richard Pryor (a former amateur boxer) hung on one-time heavyweight champion Leon Spinks in his 1979 concert film.

*On the bout sheet, Miami super featherweight Albert Bell’s nickname was listed as “Prince” but when he entered the ring, his black robe included silver sequins that read “Albert ‘Bad Ass’ Bell.” Before the ringside introductions, I leaned in and asked the alternate referee, “I wonder which name the ring announcer [Bob Alexander] is going to use? Would he dare use the rated-R version or will he stay with what’s on the bout sheet?” When the moment of truth came, to his credit, Alexander kept it clean. Leave the “Bad Ass” to WWE wrestler Billy Gunn, I say.

*Eighteen-year-old welterweight Erickson Lubin ran his record to 5-0 (5) with a five-knockdown, two-round destruction of Mexican Jovan “Negrito” Ramirez (3-2). As destructive as he’s been inside the ring thus far, that’s how much more youthful he appeared when he changed clothes and stood in the ring with stablemates Felix Diaz and Alexei Collado before their fights. It was difficult to believe that this thin, baby-faced figure had wreaked such havoc just a short time earlier. Such are the contradictions of boxing.

*Early on, it appeared that Yudel Jhonson was poised to score a scorching early knockout over journeyman Lenwood Dozier but after scoring a first-round knockdown courtesy of a combination, the Cuban import then shifted to a more workmanlike mode. Averaging an impressive 86.6 punches and 50.1 power shots each round, Jhonson peppered Dozier with combinations that piled up points and created decisive connect gaps of 194-86 overall, 57-8 jabs and 137-78 power. Jhonson’s jab was the centerpiece of his attack as he landed 7.1 per round and captured an entirely appropriate. eight-round shutout decision victory to raise his record to 15-1 (9) while dropping Dozier’s to 9-6-1 (4).

But there were a few things missing from the 2004 Olympic silver medalist’s performance. One was accuracy; he landed 28% of his overall punches and 34% of his hooks, crosses and uppercuts, both of which were below the junior middleweight averages of 31% overall and 38% power. Jhonson also didn’t appear willing to throttle up his attack following the early knockdown. Perhaps he sensed Dozier’s toughness and durability and quickly decided that a points victory was the best course of action. If that was the case, his actions could be attributed to “fighter’s prerogative.” But if Johnson’s intent was to persuade TV executives that he is worthy of a future slot, his performance, while technically skilled and ultimately effective, didn’t help his cause. Caution may be a virtue inside the ring in terms of minimizing the punishment absorbed but it is a vice if one’s aim is to generate the most possible money.

This truism even applied to Floyd Mayweather Jr. during the early part of his career because in the years before creating his “Money” persona, he struggled to generate much business for himself beyond the usual boundaries. He was technically gifted but his athletic excellence failed to attract the general sports fans vital to generating the most dollars. That all changed when Oscar De la Hoya chose Mayweather to be his opponent in early 2007 and Mayweather, who knew he couldn’t “out-good” the massively popular “Golden Boy,” played the villain’s role to the hilt.

It was a stroke of genius. By doing that, Mayweather used the stage given to him to create a brand that enraged some and enthralled others. Most importantly, however, it gave the casual fan a reason to watch him. Watching De la Hoya might have been the original purpose for buying the show but Mayweather’s antics gave them an incentive to invest themselves emotionally in the result. It didn’t matter to Mayweather that fans paid their money to see him lose because in his heart and mind, he knew he wasn’t going to lose. He reveled in spoiling their fun while profiting handsomely from their hatred. As long as they plunked down their money the next time, it was all good by him.

By beating De la Hoya by a split decision that should have been unanimous and by proving himself a viable A-side in subsequent years, Mayweather has transcended his still-cautious style to become the world’s richest athlete and the face of boxing to the general public. His landmark six-fight contract with Showtime is proof that a non-brawler can produce the biggest dollars amongst a short-attention span generation as long as he has a magnetic personality – and as long as he keeps winning.

But Mayweather is the exceptional exception. One of the hard realities of televised boxing is that networks are in the business of attracting eyeballs and a huge part of that process is showcasing fighters whose styles will accomplish that task. While sophisticated fans appreciate the attributes Guillermo Rigondeaux and Jhonson bring to the ring, the bulk of casual sports viewers do not and because there are more of the latter than there are of the former, fighters like Rigondeaux and Jhonson will be shunted aside unless they are matched with more TV-friendly opponents.

Rigondeaux tried trash-talking Nonito Donaire during the post-fight interview after beating Joseph Agbeko but while the two-time gold medalist meant every word he said, his effort came off as an act rather than an extension of his true personality. Charisma can’t be faked because it is so reliant on others’ perceptions. And Jhonson, satisfied with his dominant victory, simply walked out of the ring and gave way to the next set of fighters.

With all of the preliminaries in the books, it was time for the televised portion of the card to begin. As I scanned the bout sheet, I guessed we would work all 28 of the scheduled rounds. The first fight of the night shattered that prediction as well as one of the fighter’s perfect records.

*

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 12 writing awards, including nine in the last four years and two first-place awards since 2011. 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.

Photo-Stephanie Trapp/SHOWTIME

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