Friday, June 20: It turned out my eight-hour drive home from last weekend’s International Boxing Hall of Fame’s 25th induction was a dress rehearsal for today’s journey to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where light heavyweights Anatoliy Dudchenko and Najib Mohammedi will top an NBC Sports Network-televised card.
When CompuBox president Bob Canobbio told me about this assignment a couple of weeks earlier, I discovered there were no direct flights from Pittsburgh to Scranton, the nearest airport to Wilkes-Barre. Most of the routes went through Philadelphia or Charlotte and when I took into account the need to arrive early at the airport, the wait between flights and the short drive to the venue from Scranton’s airport, I looked into getting there by car. According to MapQuest.com, the drive was a little more than seven hours, a fact that cinched my decision to take my second consecutive road trip because (1) going by car would require less time than flying and (2) driving gave me the freedom to come and go on my own schedule instead of the airline’s.
Even before getting my driver’s license at age 16, I was a fan of long-distance driving. I grew up during the peak of the CB radio craze in the 1970s and back then, there was a romanticism connected with cross-country trucking. The open roads, the appreciation of nature and the adventure of driving to different parts of the country had long appealed to me and from time to time, I thought that if my dreams of becoming a boxing writer had not worked out, I’d give truck driving a try. But since my dreams did come true –- although not until age 42 – I have been able to enjoy the best of all worlds. So despite having a 400-plus mile drive on the horizon, I looked forward to it.
Wilkes-Barre is situated in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania, which most people associate with camping, skiing, hunting, fishing and auto racing as well as the spectacular turning of the leaves during autumn. But when the Poconos are mentioned to me, I think of Emanuel Steward, who, during the latter part of his Hall of Fame career, conducted numerous training camps at the Caesars Brookdale Resorts in Scotrun, Pa., less than an hour southeast of Wilkes-Barre. It was there that Steward prepared Lennox Lewis for his showdown with Mike Tyson in 2002 and I recall him telling me during our phone interviews that the resort had become a good luck charm because of his fantastic record of success there. Given his knowledge, execution and the greatness of the fighters he trained, Steward probably would have done just fine from any headquarters but the area’s natural beauty and solitude surely helped the cause.
As usual, when I drive to an unfamiliar city, I take both my Magellan GPS and a set of Mapquest directions, the equivalent of wearing suspenders with a belt. Given my experiences on the road, I can’t be too careful. The latter painted a route that began by driving 15 miles southwest along Route 2 to St. Mary’s and since I could complete a few errands there (mailing a package, filling up the gas tank, etc.), I figured that was the most efficient way to proceed.
Once I finished my tasks, I turned on the GPS expecting it would continue the route Mapquest had laid out. Using the “shortest time” option, I was surprised that it had me crossing the nearby bridge into Ohio and heading north. I knew beforehand this was an option but I didn’t believe it would actually be deemed the most efficient way to go from where I was. Because of my bad experiences with Mapquest and my mostly good results with the GPS, I decided to be guided by the satellites.
Most of the first two hours followed the identical route I take to the airport in Pittsburgh with the only difference being that I needed to veer off Exit 59 A instead of 59 B. Once I did, I ran into massive rush-hour congestion that took a while to escape. Once I did, I was treated to a most enjoyable ride.
With sunshine bathing everything in sight and gentle winds rustling through the lush leaves, the Magellan guided me not to major interstates but rather a succession of small towns linked by spectacularly undulating roads fit for car commercials and breathtaking scenes of natural beauty. Everywhere I glanced, my mind’s eye perceived landscapes that would make for brilliant artwork or a coffee table book of photography. I had to fight the urge to get lost in my surroundings lest I make a wrong turn.
Most of the time I had the radio on but when circumstances demanded my full attention – roads narrowed by construction, impending important turns and so on – I turned down the volume and focused on the task. Once I reached Interstate 80 East, however, I turned on the cruise control and allowed my mind to flow.
Less than an hour from my destination, I experienced a sudden crisis: my GPS screen had gone blank. The animation returned when I pressed the power button but when I did so, it was accompanied by a low battery warning message. This was a big concern because the Magellan was my only resource for tracking this particular route and I needed it to complete the crucial last series of turns within the city limits. Knowing the next turn was 47 miles away, I looked at my trip odometer, did some quick math in my head to determine when I could safely turn the GPS back on, turned off the device and pondered my options.
My mind instantly landed on a possible solution: I remembered I had a cigarette lighter adapter in the back seat but I didn’t know whether it was for my cell phone or the Magellan. As I tried to recall, I got a lucky break – a road sign indicated that the next rest stop was just a mile away.
Once I found a convenient parking spot, I opened the back door and started digging around. It turned out I had adapters for the cell phone and the GPS. I plugged in the adapter on both ends, started the ignition and silently prayed that it would work.
Success! The GPS’ screen lit up the moment I turned the key. I was back in business and after issuing a silent “Thank you” to God, I was back on the road.
I arrived at the Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs shortly before 6 p.m. and checked into my third-floor room 10 minutes later. I had hoped to catch the weigh-in but any hopes of doing so were quashed once I returned downstairs when Greg Sirb, the executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission since 1990, told me they had been completed and had gone smoothly.
After circling the casino floor a few times to get familiar with my surroundings, I decided to venture out in search of a Subway outlet I thought I saw on the way in and get a larger bag of chips at a convenience store. My search was in vain, however, so I returned to the casino, stopped by the Wolfgang Puck’s outlet in the food court and bought a turkey club sandwich, fries and soda.
When I arrived at the elevator to return to my room, I received a wonderful surprise. The doors opened and out came veteran trainer Jesse Reid Sr., who instantly recognized me and shook my hand. I had first met Reid over the phone nearly 25 years ago when I was working on a feature that centered on how five famous trainers approached giving advice between rounds. That feature included giants such as Eddie Futch and Angelo Dundee but I included Reid because of his unique ability to impart highly technical counsel and robust motivation with equal alacrity. Because of that versatility, Reid would have been my choice of voice in the corner, purely on verbal terms, had I ever become a fighter.
Following that pleasant meeting, I returned to the room and chilled for the rest of the evening. As is usually the case, either at home or on the road, it took quite a while for me to wind down after a long day so it wasn’t until after 2 a.m. that the lights finally went out.
Saturday, June 21: The first day of summer in Wilkes-Barre dawned with bright sunshine and my sleep must have been deeper than anticipated because I didn’t stir until 8:30 a.m., about a half-hour later than I wanted. Because I had an 11:30 a.m. call time at the arena – and because I didn’t feel like writing following yesterday’s prodigious drive – I wanted to give myself adequate time to capture my thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind. Fortunately for me, the words flowed freely and by 11:20 a.m., I had reached a good enough stopping point to pack my things and head to the Convention Center.
It took some time to certify all was well electronically and once that was done, my attention shifted to my punch-counting colleague, Aris Pina, who was headed to Wilkes-Barre by bus. His route was a bit more complex than mine: catch the first bus from New York to Wilkes-Barre, then wait 60-to-90 minutes for another local bus that would take him to the venue.
Once again, Aris’ time aboard the bus was an adventure.
“The ride to Wilkes-Barre wasn’t bad but it made a ton of stops on the way, which was really tedious when you’re trying to get some sleep,” he said. “I didn’t want to wait so long for the next bus so I thought, ‘Forget it, I’m going to walk it.’ I was told it was four miles away and would take me about two-and-a-half hours to get there. I didn’t know where I was going so I was asking people how to get there. This young lady gave me an incredulous look and said, ‘Don’t walk that; that’s impossible.’ After a while, I realized she was right because of all the hills, so, resigned to my fate, I decided to go back to the bus station.
“When I was waiting for the second bus to arrive, an attractive girl sat beside me and struck up a conversation,” he continued. “I asked her if she wanted some Skittles and when I got up to check the bus schedule, she ended up taking the whole bag and leaving. A few minutes later, some random girl smoking a cigarette was talking to her friend when some guy walked up to her. All of a sudden, she went from happy to rancid mean. She jumped up right in his face like the Jerry Springer Show and started arguing nose-to-nose with him. It had to be about their kids because she kept saying, ‘You weren’t there for us.’ They were going back and forth and people were getting really uncomfortable. It looked like they were five seconds away from a Mike Tyson-like dust-up. The plane rides pretty much go without incident but the bus rides are always an adventure.”
With a few hours to kill before the show, I hoped I could find a good way to do so. The antidote, at least the first part of it, came in the form of Hall of Fame referee Larry Hazzard, who serves as NBCSN’s “Unofficial Official.” Hazzard was looking for the correct room for the 2:30 p.m. production meeting, which he later learned was pushed back to three. When I mentioned that the Poconos reminded me of Steward, Hazzard surprised me with the following story.
“It’s funny you mention Emanuel because did you know that he and I were roommates when he won the National Golden Gloves championships in 1963?” he asked.
I did not.
“I was knocked out of the tournament early so I ended up going home right away,” he continued. “We didn’t meet again until the weigh-in for the Sean O’Grady-Hilmer Kenty fight in 1981. I had only been a referee for a few years (the O’Grady-Kenty fight, according to Boxrec.com, was only Hazzard’s second world title fight) and when I came upon Emanuel, we looked at each other as if to say, ‘You kind of look familiar.’ Once we made the connection, it was really something.”
When Hazzard left for the production meeting, I ran into another “Unofficial Official” in HBO’s Harold Lederman, who was accompanied by his daughter, Julie. Julie, arguably the sport’s best judge, was working the card while Harold was attending as a fan. After leading Harold to the people who could help him get his ticket, he, Aris and I walked inside the arena and chatted for a good while longer. Harold regaled Aris and me with stories about his 31-year judging career as well as attending one of Sugar Ray Robinson’s two fights with Denny Moyer in Madison Square Garden. If ever a man needs to write his memoirs, it is Harold.
The crew meal was held inside the Timber’s Buffet and I opted for the classic mashed potatoes, corn, chicken, salad and soda. Once we returned to the arena, I passed the time the way I always do – by seeking out conversations. Some of the press row members I spoke with included Kurt Wolfheimer of Fightnews.com, Ken Hissner of Doghouse Boxing, Evan Korn of the Citizen’s Voice newspaper in Wilkes-Barre (who told me he was a fan of my work) and the “Original Travelin’ Man” Jack Obermayer, who told me Wilkes-Barre may well be a new city for him (number 389 according to his count).
Although the live show wasn’t scheduled to begin until 8 p.m. the workday for Aris and me actually began at 5:45 when we counted the first fight of the night, a four-round junior middleweight bout between New Jersey products Hakim Bryant and Al Johnson, which, for us, served as a rehearsal fight for the action the come. We had no idea just how much action they would end up providing. But more on that in Part Two.
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 email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange for autographed copies.
Photo courtesy of thekmagroup.com