Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man goes to Las Vegas-part I

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If a person is fortunate, he or she will experience a handful of landmark days that will define him or her professionally in the most positive terms. The odds against living two such days during the same week, however, are astronomical.

On May 1, I accepted a first-place plaque and a third-place certificate at the 89th annual Boxing Writers Association of America’s awards dinner at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Less than 48 hours later at the same venue, I was one of the two punch-counters that worked the pay-per-view card topped by Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s stirring majority decision victory over Marcos Maidana, my first mega-event for CompuBox.

I learned of these two developments within hours of each other, both of which sparked simultaneous pride and humility – pride for the scope of the accomplishments and humility that they were bestowed by peers who believed my work was worthy of such honors. For the next couple of weeks, I counted down the days before the start of this most special adventure and the following two-part article chronicles the trip’s events through one man’s eyes.

Wednesday, April 30: The past 14 days couldn’t have felt faster because each was stuffed with boxing-related work that occupied most of my waking hours. With every passing day, the pile expanded and contracted but by the time I went to bed six hours earlier, I had finally reached a point in which I felt comfortable about spending the next five days enjoying each experience with a clear mind and a thankful heart.

As I pulled out of the driveway shortly after 11:30 a.m., even the clammy, drizzly weather couldn’t dampen my buoyant mood. A pair of road construction projects delayed my progress somewhat but I still arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport with plenty of time to spare. The line at the security checkpoint was stunningly short and the unpacking/repacking process was pleasingly unhurried.

Because I was flying Southwest Airlines, I didn’t know my seat location until I boarded the aircraft. Unlike other airlines, Southwest utilizes a format akin to “festival seating” at concerts – everyone has his choice of seat at the time of boarding but those choices dwindle with every succeeding passenger. Because I don’t fly Southwest often, I was to be the 96th person to board and as I awaited my turn, I didn’t feel good about finding an unoccupied window or aisle seat. Once I scanned the plane’s interior, however, I not only spotted a window seat but also one that was just eight rows back. A couple had taken the middle and aisle seats and to my delight, they weren’t saving the vacancy for anyone else. After putting my roller board suitcase away in the overhead bin and my laptop bag underneath the seat in front of me, I happily settled in and waited for the four-and-a-half hour flight to begin.

Although the plane left Pittsburgh 20 minutes later than scheduled, it ended up being one of the smoothest flights I’ve ever experienced. The turbulence that usually occurred while flying over the Rocky Mountains and while approaching the tree-less desert near Vegas was nonexistent and the 77-degree temperatures were unusually comfortable.

Thanks to the generosity of veteran broadcaster and Las Vegas resident James “Smitty” Smith, I stayed at his house for the first two days of this journey. The original plan was for him to pick me up at the airport but that changed once I looked at my messages after landing.

“I may just have you catch a cab to the MGM as I’m stuck working,” Smith texted. “By the time you get here, I’ll be done. I’ll keep you posted.”

“I’ve just landed and I don’t have to go through baggage claim,” I replied, previously mentioning that if I couldn’t fit my suit inside my luggage, I may have to check a bag. Because I was able to squeeze it in, that wasn’t an issue. “Where shall we meet?”

“At the MGM’s Hecho En Vegas Restaurant,” he said.

“Cool, I’m on the way.” I concluded.

My cab driver was a lively character from Boston and within 10 minutes, I spotted Smitty and “In This Corner” producer Jon Hait just as they were finishing their meal. After doing some catching up, we stopped by the MGM’s press room to pick up Jon’s equipment. At that point, Smitty and I said our goodbyes to Jon and began our portion of the evening.

Smitty’s house is located approximately 20 minutes outside the strip in an area that has experienced rapid expansion over the past three years. What once was untouched desert now has several apartment buildings and shopping plazas. The parked earth movers are proof that the work is far from finished. Once we caught up further, Smitty, ever the attentive host, asked if I needed to get something to eat. After he listed the options, I settled on PT’s Restaurant, situated in a nearby section called Anthem Highlands. We found a corner table and as I surveyed the menu, he recommended I get the beef sliders, which are served with “coo coo” fries and a choice of beverage. My choice was, as usual, diet soda.

As is often the case with Smitty and me, our conversation was so lengthy, we nearly closed down the joint. Once we returned to his house, we watched the third episode of “All Access: Mayweather-Maidana,” after which I received a triple treat.

The first: a mini “In Ring” session in which he showed me (1) how to shadow-box without looking like the complete amateur that I am, (2) how to throw a right cross with snap and increased power and (3) how constant pivoting can create the kind of mental chaos that leads to physical exhaustion. Through the eyes of someone with extremely limited ring experience, Smitty’s bag of tricks further illustrated that remaining on the safe side of the ropes was a wise choice.

Smitty had me hold out my hands as if they were mitts and after taking three powerful rights to the bottom of my right palm, I switched my target hand because of the sting produced by his rock-hard knuckles. When we squared up and did a few moments of shadowboxing to illustrate another point, he easily found openings for well-timed right leads that landed before I could even react. One particular move, which I later learned was Sugar Ray Robinson’s “candy cane punch,” had him feinting a jab, suddenly shifting toward his right and digging a compact right to the short ribs. Even though he clearly was holding back, I got a good idea of what might have happened had he not.

The second treat: a generous sampling of Smitty’s keen eye for the nuances of the sport. Before the trip, I asked that he give me a demonstration of why Bert Randolph Sugar and historian Hank Kaplan were so impressed by his analysis. Although I’ve watched fights for 40 years, my acumen is basically self-taught. Knowing I still have more to learn, I was eager to acquire deeper knowledge about facets of the game that escaped even my seasoned eye.

When he asked me which fight we should watch, I chose the first Aaron Pryor-Alexis Arguello fight because in my mind, Pryor’s tactics and Arguello’s reactions to them amplified the lessons he just showed me in our shadowboxing session. While I have watched Pryor-Arguello I a number of times, Smitty’s ability to identify and articulate tactics and trends allowed me to see the fight in several different lights.

“See how Pryor is constantly moving around during the warm-ups and how much of a sweat he already has,” he began. “And then look at Arguello: there’s not a drop of sweat on his body and this is August in Miami. That’s troubling. Pryor’s already done three or four rounds of work and he looks like he could go all night.”

More than once, Smith noticed how the variety of Pryor’s jabs as well as his fluid pivots and feints set up the power combinations that followed.

“Look at that,” he said at one point. “Pryor lands the jab, moves off to his right and in one motion, he lands a right over the top. That’s beautiful. And he’s also doing something a lot of fighters today don’t do: use ‘throwaway punches’ that aren’t necessarily designed to score but to throw Arguello off and set up the real hard punches. Everything that Pryor is doing is being set up by his perpetual motion and as result, Arguello is always a day late and a dollar short.”

Pryor’s versatility stood in stark contrast to Arguello’s one-dimensional attack but when the Nicaraguan landed a hook to the body, Smitty declared, “That’s the one punch he should have been throwing all night. Those body hooks slowed down Pryor’s movement for a moment and had he kept it up, he would have done better. He probably wouldn’t have won but he would have done better.”

From time to time, he gave me the third treat: Smitty called the fight as if he were on the air. His staccato voice rose and fell in time with the action that unfolded before him and the ease with which he shifted to and from announcer mode in terms of voice projection reflected his decades of experience. His voice grew in intensity as Pryor prepared to deliver the combinations that eventually ended the fight while noting that I should watch Pryor’s rear leg to see how he sprang off it while firing right hands.

The session only affirmed what I already thought: for my money, Smitty is as good as there is as far as blending well-honed broadcasting skills with his practical experience in the ring. Not only that, his old-school sensibilities add historical texture to his calls but at age 55, he’s still young enough to exude the energy needed to catch younger fans’ attention.

After stopping the DVD we continued to go from subject to subject and before we knew it, 4 a.m. had arrived. With a long and busy day ahead we agreed to shut down – at least for a little while.

Thursday, May 1: Following four hours of unsettled slumber, I was awakened by my cell phone, which I used as my clock since the guest bedroom didn’t have one. The caller was veteran Florida trainer Steve Canton, who I met many years ago during an IBHOF induction weekend and, after much prodding from friends, recently wrote and released his first book entitled “Steve Canton’s Tributes, Memories and Observations of the Sweet Science.” He asked me if I had a chance to read the book and I told him I finished it shortly before my plane touched down in Vegas. We spent a few more minutes shooting the breeze before hanging up and once I did, I figured it was a good time to start what I knew would be a most eventful day.

Smitty drove me to the MGM Grand where we attended the press conference, which was held inside a large theater, for the three-fight undercard. Hundreds of cameramen and reporters filled up on the catered food and prepared to chronicle the event while the fighters’ friends and family members flitted to and fro. Amir Khan was bedecked in a brilliantly blue, three-piece suit – an outfit that drew Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer’s immediate attention – and Adrien Broner entertained the assemblage by beginning his remarks with a humorous bait-and-switch:

“I’d like to thank God and Al Haymon and I hope to do the best that I can on Saturday,” he said in a quiet monotone that brought quizzical titters from the audience. Then, flashing a big smile, he launched into full-on Broner mode: “If y’all thought a loss was gonna humble me or put me in my place, then y’all can just shove that all y’all’s ass. Listen, I’ve come to do damage, man. I’m punching with bad intentions and I’m back on my A-game. You put Carlos Molina in front of me? That’s kinda disrespectful to me, so I’m going to make an example out of this motherf–ker. Sh-t, ain’t he already broke?”

Precisely. That’s why Molina got the fight.

As I waited for Smitty and Jon to film their interviews, I mingled with some of my peers, then returned to the press room to film “Press Row Picks” segments for Sergio Martinez-Miguel Cotto and Saul Alvarez-Erislandy Lara for FightNow.TV, where I’ve become a semi-regular contributor. Despite a verbal stumble or two that required a couple of retakes, Hait, an expert at such things, was happy with the final result. So if he’s happy, I’m happy.

While Smitty addressed other tasks such as interviewing Keith Thurman and appearing on radio in New Zealand, I spent some time shooting the breeze with Dan Rafael, this year’s winner of the “Nat Fleischer Award for Excellence in Boxing Journalism,” and veteran Showtime producer Jody Heaps.

After leaving the media center, I decided to walk to the third floor of the Conference Center, the location of the BWAA dinner, about an hour before the 6 p.m. cocktail. To pass the time, I found a comfortable easy chair 100 feet from the entrance and spent the next hour doing what writers do: write. I also contemplated about what was to come: the people I’d get to meet, the celebration of excellence and the weight of the occasion. The suit I was wearing made that process somewhat uncomfortable as I’m a t-shirt and jeans guy at heart but I figured the fancy clothing was a small price to pay for the honor I was about to receive. Once I wrapped my mind around everything, I spent several minutes conversing with veteran collector John Gay (whose copy of the 1957 “Ring Record Book” boasts more than 700 signatures) and a German boxing writer whose name I failed to catch before securing my banquet ticket and starting the big night.

The cocktail began at 6 p.m. and for the next 90 minutes, I floated from conversation to conversation while also finding interview subjects for Smitty (who was covering the dinner for Fight Now) and identifying non-advertised fighters for emcee Steve Farhood, who was to introduce them during the dinner. A few of the more enjoyable conversations were with Ron Borges (the Meryl Streep of the Bernies since he’s the all-time record-holder for awards), Colonel Bob Sheridan (the “Nat Fleischer Award” winner for “Long and Meritorious Service”), fellow Pirates fan Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports, Showtime analyst Raul Marquez, fellow honoree Gordon Marino and Hall-of-Famer Mike McCallum, who I hadn’t seen since “The Body Snatcher’s” IBHOF induction 11 years ago. As soon as he heard my name, his eyes lit up in recognition and it was as if no time had passed. In my book, he’s a class fighter and a class person.

My ticket stub indicated that I was seated at Table 10. The good news: my table-mates included Borges, Sheridan and his wife, fellow first-placers David Weinberg and Springs Toledo (the latter of whom I sat with at the dinner two years earlier) and RingTV.com’s own Lem Satterfield, one of the hardest-working boxing writers walking the earth. On the spot, I bought a copy of Toledo’s new book “The Gods of War,” onto which he then affixed a personalized autograph. Now I have something to read on the plane ride back.

When it came time for the Bernie Award winners to be called on stage, all I could think was, “Don’t trip on the steps; make sure your fly is up and look like you belong.” Each of our names was announced to the crowd and as I took my place between Toledo and ace RingTV.com photographer Naoki Fukuda, I scanned the audience for familiar faces. There were plenty. I was so proud to be standing with such terrific and talented people in front of such a prestigious audience. As we posed for the group photo, the muscles in my cheeks quivered as I tried to hold a smile (a common problem) but thankfully the shutters didn’t have to snap for too long. Still, it was a proud moment and I felt privileged to be there.

I left the dinner before dessert because Smitty, my ride back, was waiting just outside the conference room and he needed to get home early because of the long work day that awaited him. Just as well, the suit was a bit snug and I didn’t need to strain it more by eating a chocolate mousse or something.

Unlike the previous night, I turned in at a more reasonable hour – 1 a.m. – and given the little sleep I was working on, I expected a far deeper and more satisfying slumber.

Friday, May 2: I was right; I stirred awake after six-and-a-half hours and was eager to get ready for the next adventure – my first trip to the Mayweather Gym.

Smitty was scheduled to interview Bermane Stiverne, who was in the final stages of training for his rematch with Chris Arreola for the vacant WBC heavyweight title. While the “In This Corner” duo filmed Stiverne hitting the pads with Don House, I shot the breeze with trainer Bill Miller (not the one who guided James Toney but a veteran pilot nonetheless). The subject quickly turned to Mayweather’s otherworldly skills as well as his place in boxing history. No matter what side of the fence you are as to whether “Money” is “TBE” (“The Best Ever”), one can’t toss to the side the extraordinary talent that is only exceeded by his work ethic nor the results of his marketing genius.

Because of all the 24/7 and All Access shows centered on Mayweather and the Mayweather Gym, I was surprised at how compact the interior was when I looked at it in three dimensions. There was enough room for two rings and a variety of heavy bags but like all three namesakes (the two Floyds and Roger), it didn’t have any excess fat. Giant photos of Mayweather adorned the walls and the fighter’s father was among those watching the action inside the rings. While the Stiverne interview was going on in one ring, the other had a sparring session that included an intriguing novice pro who was born in Africa but raised in Poland. Though I spotted some fixable defensive flaws, his fluid combinations carried impressive speed, precision and power.

One thing Miller said near the end of our talk struck me: “You haven’t yet seen the best fighter who will ever live but you will during your lifetime.” That’s a heck of a thing to say in the Mayweather Gym given its owner’s claims of ultimate superiority but if there’s a fighter who, in terms of skill set, will be greater than Sugar Ray Robinson, I certainly look forward to the day I'll get to watch him.

Smitty and I had separate pieces of business to conduct at the MGM Grand so at that point, we split up. While he tended to his responsibilities, I tackled a three-pronged “to do” list: First, check into my hotel room, second, attend the weigh-in and third, conduct the usual electronic, pre-fight checks to ensure all would be well come fight night.

As is usually the case, I experienced some snags along the way.

First, after spending 45 minutes in an insanely long queue at the hotel registration desk, I learned my room wouldn’t be ready for several hours but would the desk would call my cell with my information once everything was confirmed. The bellman stored my clothes bag while I took my laptop carrying case with me to the credential office, where I had my photo taken for the event-day tag.

Second, the weigh-in festivities were already in full swing by the time I arrived. Thousands of people had already packed the stands in anticipation of a bonus: a concert by rapper 2 Chainz.

Me and a rap concert: Can you imagine a more bizarre pairing?

Thanks to my temporary credential, I was allowed into the press section located on the arena floor. Spotting fellow scribe Mark Ortega in the middle of row eight, his familiar face was enough to persuade me that this was the place to be.

Or maybe not. The concert began with a pair of “undercard” artists whose stylings strained the limits of the speakers placed just 30 feet from me. The bass notes tore through my chest cavity with the force of a defibrillator. Although Mark was sitting less than three feet away, I had to yell at nearly full volume just to be heard, which, because I’m normally a soft-spoken person, took its toll on my vocal cords less than halfway through the show.

The curtain-raisers didn’t garner any reaction from the assemblage but 2 Chainz certainly did. His arrival prompted hundreds of camera phone lights to dot the darkness and his performance caused several groups of patrons to dance in the stands. As for me, I couldn’t understand a word he said due to the speakers’ distortion but at least my ears had adjusted to the extreme decibel level. It wasn’t this nearly 50-year-old Caucasian redhead’s cup of tea but it wasn’t bad either. Then again, what would 2 Chainz care? After all, as comedian Chris Rock famously said, “It isn’t for you.”

I recognized the larger point of this stagecraft: If boxing is to lure in the next generation of fans, rap shows and razzmatazz must be part of the equation. It certainly drew big numbers into the arena and most of those numbers stayed around to witness the pugilistic portion of the program.

The weigh-ins for the four televised fights – J’Leon Love vs. Marco Antonio Periban, Adrien Broner vs. Carlos Molina, Amir Khan vs. Luis Collazo and Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Marcos Maidana – went off without a hitch. Everyone scaled within the contracted limits and no unscheduled brawls broke out. But once “Money” and “El Chino” exited the stage, so did many of the fans although weigh-ins for four more fights were about to take place. As for me, I still had work to do.

After going back and forth around ringside and the TV truck, I decided to wait for CompuBox’s Joe Carnicelli inside the arena and let him find me. While I waited, I introduced myself to ESPN Deportes correspondent Gloria Trejos, who was just wrapping up her final live stand-up for the weigh-in show. She lit up as soon as I mentioned Carnicelli’s name and she asked me to say hi to Joe for her, which I did once he arrived a few minutes later.

The Carnicelli magic in terms of getting quick green lights happened again but because we hadn’t seen each other for a few months, we hung out for an extra half-hour before leaving the venue.

Just before leaving ringside, the front desk called my cell to inform me my room was finally ready – five hours after my initial check-in. I reacquired my clothes bag and headed toward the elevators that would take me to my 15th floor room. But along the way, I experienced a detour: near the ring in the middle of the lobby, I spotted a bearded man wearing the same black IBHOF t-shirt I sported that bore the words “Eat, Sleep, Breathe Boxing.” It turned out to be 1996 Australian Olympian Lyndon Hosking, who lost his first-round 67-kilogram (147 pounds) bout to Kazakhstan’s Nurzhan Smanov. I learned he now is training up-and-comers in his gym back home and that he comes to the States a couple of times a year to attend the big fights. Our conversation again proved how a love of boxing can instantly bridge miles, backgrounds and hemispheres. The back-and-forth easily ate up 30 minutes and it would have lasted even longer had we not had other pressing matters.

While I was unpacking my bags, I made a horrible discovery: I had left the plugs for both of my laptops at ringside.

I raced back to the arena, which, thankfully, was still accessible to my credentialed self. And more thankfully the plugs were exactly where I had left them more than an hour earlier. Relieved, I ate an early-evening dinner at the food court while perusing the most recent edition of THE RING, which I bought at the airport in Pittsburgh two days earlier.

With my appetite satisfied, I returned to my room to chronicle the various events of this day and by the time I reached the end, three hours that felt like half had elapsed. With my eyes growing heavy, I spent the rest of the evening surfing the net and the TV set before calling it a night. It was only right for a 10 a.m. call time to the arena was inching ever closer. Still, I could hardly wait for it to begin.

*

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 by Chris Farina/Top Rank Promotions

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