Lee Groves

The Travelin’ Man returns to Foxwoods-part I

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My most recent trip to Las Vegas for Floyd Mayweather-Marcos Maidana was a journey into the unusual: my first mega-fight, punch-counting job for CompuBox and my second time on stage to receive a BWAA plaque. It was five days of sensory overload and occasional sleep deprivation but in my bloodshot eyes, the final results were wonderful.

Eleven days later, the Travelin’ Man returned to more familiar territory: A ShoBox telecast emanating from Foxwoods, one of my earliest and most frequent destinations. The route getting there has changed (direct flights to and from Providence then, Hartford now after US Airways dropped that option) and this time, our lodging was situated in a most mystical town (Mystic, Connecticut). Still, the sights and sounds of fight night at the Fox Theater remained largely the same – for good and bad. I’ll explain that statement later.

As usual, this two-part travelogue will chronicle events as seen through a writer’s eye – and a fan’s heart.

Thursday, May 15: Many would think that working the next card after an event like Mayweather-Maidana would result in a letdown. On the surface, I can see why: it isn’t every day when I’m ringside for a history-making match and it certainly isn’t often when I receive a national writing award – and neither of these things happened here. But while the trimmings and tributes are great and much appreciated, they don’t represent the core of why I love doing what I do.

Nearly six years ago, when I wrote for MaxBoxing.com, I penned an article entitled “Why I Love Boxing.” In a nutshell, those reasons were (1) the unique nature of its one-on-one confrontation, (2) the instant connection it gives me with fellow fans and (3) its rich history and assortment of unique characters. Now that I’m in “the industry,” my regard has intensified – but not without challenges along the way (Click here for “One boxing fan’s crisis of confidence”).

Still, the fire that was ignited within me on March 16, 1974 when Roberto Duran stopped Esteban DeJesus in the second of their three fights continues to rage. The reasons have nothing to do with the bells and whistles but rather because of what happens equally between the bells and ears. Not only is boxing a physical drama, it’s also a psychological one that reveals the core of an athlete like none other. It is one thing to compete in a given sport but it’s another matter entirely when he or she must still perform while being punched. It takes a special mentality just to engage, much less excel, and I, for one, appreciate what it takes to reach that level because I realized long ago I lacked the talent to even try.

Every match is a story unto itself and the possibilities are endless. I am convinced that even now, centuries after the sport’s modern incarnation, not every scenario has unfolded. Boxing is a never-ending case study in human behavior as well as a forum to examine every individual’s limits of physical and mental endurance. It’s also a fascinating mental exercise to analyze styles, conjure strategic solutions, debate mythical match-ups and compile data from all eras.

Unlike other sports, boxing can formulate direct comparisons between eras through statistical data. While the peripheral issues around boxing have changed, the array of punches has remained the same. Thus for example, we can compare the effectiveness of the three “Sugar Rays” (Robinson, Leonard and Mosley) against their respective opponents and draw educated conclusions about their offensive and defensive efficiencies. All that’s necessary are complete films of their respective fights and a trained operator to compile the stats. It’s just another reason George Foreman was right when he said boxing is the sport to which all others aspire.

So that’s why I enjoy working cards like this one at Foxwoods – which will be topped by Joel Diaz Jr.-Tyler Asselstine and Frank Galarza-Sebastien Bouchard – as much as I do witnessing the fights that etch their names into the history books. Before doing that, however, I had to get there.

*

Despite having the luxury of boarding just one plane on this day, I knew I still had a lot of travel ahead of me. Besides the usual two-and-a-half hour drive from Friendly to Pittsburgh International Airport, there was the 90-minute trek from Hartford to our crew hotel located in a most unusually named town.

Situated in the southeast corner of the state, Mystic, Connecticut boasts a population of 4,205 (as of the 2010 Census) as well as the Mystic Seaport (the nation’s largest maritime museum) and the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration. The title of the 1988 film Mystic Pizza was inspired by the restaurant located there and while several scenes were shot inside the town, the eatery wasn’t included. My plans, however, didn’t include these sites but rather finding the hotel and hoping to arrive at Foxwoods in time to attend the 5 p.m. weigh-in. After that, who knows?

I pulled out of the driveway shortly before 9 a.m. amid chilly, rainy conditions that felt more like mid-March than mid-May. I brought a cap from the first Jermain Taylor-Bernard Hopkins fight just in case it was raining in Pittsburgh and, of course, it was. However, I caught a very lucky break when, while scanning a second giant parking lot, I found a place a little more than 100 yards from the terminal entrance. My “silver” status on US Airways gave me access to the far shorter “preferred access” line at the security checkpoint and the screening process was completed with no problems. Noticing the Mayweather-Maidana souvenir T-shirt I was wearing, one of the TSA agents asked me, “Who won the fight?”

“Mayweather but it wasn’t easy,” I replied. “He was really pushed and it was a majority decision. If you have a chance to watch it, do it.”

I bought a grilled chicken wrap, fries and a Diet Coke at the McDonald’s outlet located across from my gate, which, a half-hour later, was changed to one 150 feet down the hall. I passed part of the time talking with a family headed to West Springfield, Massachusetts for an equestrian competition sponsored by the AQHYA (American Quarter Horse Youth Association), scheduled for the weekend. The stakes were high; one of the daughters was among just 24 competitors in the national finals for her age group and, more amazingly, she achieved this status in her first year of competition. When I asked if the Olympics was a potential goal, the parents laughed it off as being too far away and too lofty to think about this early in the process. I understand the virtues of an incremental approach but if a novice demonstrates enough talent to reach the nationals in any given pursuit in his or her initial year, perhaps higher standards should be considered, especially if she ends up placing.

Then again, as she sifted through a pile of yellow flash cards that covered details for the written test (also part of the contest), she dismissed topic after topic as irrelevant. I said nothing but that attitude was revealing; true champions pay attention to every detail no matter how small or unimportant it may appear at that moment. Those who embrace that concept will likely become the wheat that rises above the chaff.

As usual, the flight advertised for a 1:29 p.m. departure actually took off a half-hour later but managed to land just 15 minutes behind schedule. I spent most of the flight resting my tired eyes to make certain they’d be fresh for the second long drive of the day.

After deplaning, I waited for the Avis shuttle bus to arrive and thankfully it did only five minutes later. When I got to the rental car facility, I took my place in line behind two other groups of people and glanced at the clock – 3:30 p.m. I knew then I had to scrap my original plan – drive to Mystic, drop my stuff off at the hotel and drive back to Foxwoods for the weigh-in – in favor of a new one: if Foxwoods was on the way, I’d stop there before proceeding to Mystic.

It didn’t work out that way. Once I picked up my vehicle – a gray four-door Hyundai Sonata that for whatever reason had Maryland plates – my trusted Magellan GPS unit programmed a route that didn’t place me anywhere near Foxwoods. Also, the late-afternoon traffic created plenty of snarls, especially in downtown Hartford. I arrived at the hotel at 5:15 and with Foxwoods 20 minutes away, I knew I was going to miss the weigh-in. Still, I felt the need to conduct a “drive rehearsal” so that I’d be able to find Foxwoods with no problems the next day.

One problem though: my Magellan didn’t recognize the ZIP code provided on the production memo or the listed city name – Mashantucket. I got around that, however: I knew from previous trips that the city was also known as Ledyard and the final street name on the memo’s directions was “Norwich Westerly Road,” so I took a shot in the dark and programmed both names into the GPS. The hypothesis: if they took, then I’d at least get close enough to Foxwoods to let my surroundings guide me the rest of the way.

Success! The addresses were accepted but the route my unit chose had me driving through narrow country roads with hairpin turns that reminded me of those in my native West Virginia. These are roads that are not for the faint of heart or the urban of birth. It’s very tempting to approach these turns too quickly, drift into the other lane and risk an accident because of one’s inability to see what’s around the bend. Thus, conservatism is the key. It wasn’t until the final five minutes that I realized the right path had been chosen but once I did, I was greatly relieved.

Not knowing which garage to pull into, I chose the Rainmaker because it was the first one I saw. Applying the lessons I learned a few weeks earlier in Atlantic City when I lost track of where I parked my car, I grabbed one of the green locator reminder tags that hung on the wall before stepping into the elevator that would take me to the casino.

A security guard told me that I had made the second-best choice by pulling into the Rainmaker garage and advised me to use the Great Cedar garage the next day. After thanking him for his counsel, I followed the signs and arrived in front of the Fox Theater a few minutes later. It was now 6:15 but I decided to see if anyone from the weigh-in was lingering. Aside from a couple of sweatsuit-clad fighters shooting the breeze, I only saw a pair of security guards. Apparently I hadn’t missed much as everyone made weight and there were no flashes of temper. In other words, this weigh-in proceeded as all of them should.

I retrieved my vehicle, stopped for an early-evening snack (no, it wasn’t Mystic Pizza) and spent the rest of the evening indulging in TV surfing that included a pair of NBA playoff games. Shortly after 1 a.m., the lights snapped off on another day.

Friday, May 16: For me, this day began after six-and-a-half hours of very restful slumber – the constant whir of the air conditioner sounded like the fan I run at home while sleeping – and after finishing the usual morning routines, I rummaged through the laptop bag for my itinerary to see when I needed to wake up the following morning. When I found nothing, I remembered I had left it on the front seat of the rental car but on the way out I spotted Steve Farhood having breakfast in the hotel diner. For the next hour, we talked about this, that and many other things before saying our goodbyes.

It was a good thing I spent so much time with Steve, for I learned my 24-hour check-in window wouldn’t begin until 11:25 a.m. That meant I still had more than an hour to kill, which I spent tapping away on the laptop.

One of the day’s major logistical issues centered on my punch-counting colleague, Aris Pina. Because the Greyhound bus between New York City and Foxwoods has a limited schedule, he was supposed to arrive at the casino less than an hour before our 3 p.m. call time inside the arena. On most assignments, we stay on the property from call time until at least after we’re off the air, which meant he wouldn’t be able to check into the hotel until after midnight. If nothing was done, his reservation would have expired.

I had two options – and the first ended up working. I approached the clerk at the reservation desk and explained the situation, after which she made sure the computer didn’t cancel his room. But even if it had, I would have invited him to stay in my room, which, fortunately, had two beds.

Just before I went down to the lobby, Aris called me from the bus and told me he’d be arriving at Foxwoods between 2 and 2:15. I instructed him to meet me in front of the Fox Theater, which prompted some hesitation because Aris had never worked a show at Foxwoods before. I assured him the signs would be enough to see him through.

I left the hotel a little after 1:30 in case Aris’ bus arrived at the earlier time. It didn’t, so I decided to go inside the arena to check out the surroundings. What I saw made me groan.

For the fans, there are few better places than the Fox Theater to see a fight. The sightlines are excellent no matter the vantage point and the seats (each of which has a cup holder) are plush and boast plenty of elbow room. But for us working stiffs, the configuration is a pain because of the narrow trench that separates the edge of the ring and the railing that marks the start of the stands. The space between them is so small that fighters inside the ring and fans in the first row can reach across and shake hands. Now imagine the difficulties of fitting tables and chairs inside this pit as well as stringing the necessary wires for monitors, sound equipment and other items required for a TV production. The ShoBox crew was kind enough to push part of our work station underneath the ring apron, which created just enough of a gap to maximize a minimalist work space.

When 2:30 came and went, I texted Aris to find out what was going on. There was plenty. He filled the gaps in later:

“We hit some traffic and then the bus driver said over the loudspeaker he needed to go to the bathroom,” he recalled. “So he pulls into a rest stop and as he starts to head to the bathroom, the bus starts rolling back onto the highway because he left the gear shift in neutral instead of park. He doesn’t notice until it was almost all the way back – and because we were screaming at him. He jumps back on the bus and slams the brake so hard that I hit my head on the back of the seat in front of me. After all that, all he does is say, ‘Ha, ha. Wasn’t that funny?’ It was just another memorable bus ride for me.”

We met in front of the venue shortly before 3:30 and after the crew meal at the Casino Buffet, the final electronic bows were tied. The stage – and at the Fox Theater, it literally was a stage – was set for the fight action 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.

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